Russians exalted at hosting the World Cup, despite having an under-performing national team

RUSWorldCup18Moscow--The World Cup kicks off in Moscow this week, but not even the most enthusiastic Russian soccer fan believes their country’s woeful national team has any hope of winning the high-profile tournament, which runs June 14 through July 15. 

Winless in seven games and with just one shot on target in their last two matches, Russia was jeered off the field following a 1-1 draw with a weak Turkey side in Moscow on Tuesday evening. That was the team’s last match before the tournament begins for real. “This is our worst national side ever,” said the state television commentator, summing up the black mood of millions of Russian soccer fans.

Even President Vladimir Putin admits Russia has almost no chance of success, tipping one of Argentina, Brazil, Germany and Spain – soccer’s traditional powerhouses – to triumph. As for team Russia, the Kremlin strongman simply says he hopes they will “fight until the end.” That end is unlikely to be long in coming. A popular question among soccer fans here is: “Who are you going to support when Russia go out before the play-offs?”

But Mr. Putin is unlikely to lose too much sleep over the likely lack of soccer glory for his country. As with the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, Moscow is using the month-long tournament to promote the image of Russia as a powerful and confident nation able to organize events on an international level. It’s also an attempt, analysts say, to polish Russia’s global reputation, which has been tarnished by its military interventions in Syria and Ukraine, as well as allegations of election meddling in the United States and elsewhere. No expense has been spared. The Kremlin says it has pumped $11 billion into the event, but that does not include sparkling new stadiums and some infrastructure, which the government says would have been built in any case. 

“For the Russian authorities, the sporting element of the World Cup is of secondary significance. Its use for propaganda purposes is far more important,” said Igor Gretskiy, a professor of international relations at St Petersburg State University. “The Kremlin will use the tournament to demonstrate that Russia has not been isolated and that sanctions imposed by western powers are toothless and ineffective.

Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, caused outrage in Russia in March when he said Mr. Putin would use the World Cup for propaganda in the same way that Adolf Hitler exploited the 1936 Berlin Olympics to promote Nazi ideas. “Russia has many things it can be criticized for, but this is extremely disrespectful to those people who died in the war against Nazi Germany,” said Robert Ustian, a Russian anti-racism campaigner. An estimated 28 million Soviet soldiers and citizens lost their lives during World War Two. Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, said Mr. Johnson had a “poisoned” mind.

Russia’s security services have been tasked with ensuring that nothing goes wrong at Mr Putin’s showcase event. And that includes making sure than there are no embarrassing displays of dissent in front of international media. Police have tightened laws on public protests and detained 19 members of opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption movement during nationwide raids. Their crimes? Tweeting about protests. Mr Navalny is also serving a 30-day sentence on protest-related charges. “Let’s call things by their real names. This is political repression,” said Lubov Sobol, one of the opposition activists still at liberty. 

It’s not only political dissidents that the Kremlin is concerned about. In the run-up to the World Cup, law enforcement agencies are clamping down on  the country’s notorious soccer hooligans, who ran riot in Marseille, France during the Euro 2016 tournament. Around 150 people have been placed on a blacklist, and Federal Security Service (FSB) officers have been warning known-hooligans not to spoil the occasion. “I’m absolutely certain that nothing even close to what took place in Marseille will happen here. The authorities are a lot more in control of the hooligan firms here. There is total surveillance,” said Alexander Shprygin, the former leader of a Russian fans association. Although the U.S. soccer team has not qualified for the World Cup, tens of thousands of American fans are expected to travel to Russia for the event. 

In some respects, the timing of the World Cup couldn’t be better for Mr Putin. The tournament comes amid widening differences among European countries over western economic sanctions that were imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014. On June 5, Giuseppe Conte, the Italian prime minister, broke ranks with allies in western Europe by calling for an end to the sanctions and for Moscow to be brought back into the international fold. His comments came as Mr. Putin used a trip to Austria, one of Europe’s more Moscow-friendly countries, to urge an end to the sanctions, which he described as “harmful for everyone.” 

Despite the Kremlin’s bluster, western economic sanctions, along with lower prices for oil, have hurt Russia. Over three million people have been plunged into poverty since their introduction, raising social tensions and highlighting vast wealth inequality, which is one of the highest in the world. But Mr Putin is hoping the World Cup will provide a boost economic  to the struggling economy. Some 570,000 foreign fans are expected to visit Russia during the World Cup and Kremlin officials insist the tournament will spark a massive increase in tourism and create jobs. Most experts say, however, that government predictions of a $30.8 billion boost to Russia’s GDP over ten years are unrealistic. “We see very limited economic impact at the national level given the limited duration of the World Cup and the very large size of the country’s economy,” said analysts at credit rating agency Moody’s.

There is unlikely to be much backlash for Mr. Putin, if Russia’s national team performs as badly as expected. Many Russians are simply proud that their country is hosting such a major sporting event, and soccer fans are excited about seeing the world’s greatest players in the flesh. Some fans are even somewhat relieved that Russia are unlikely to progress too far: “For me, this is a tournament of two halves,” said Viktor Shenderovich, a well-known writer and soccer fan. “For the first half, while Russia is still involved, the country will be gripped by patriotic hysteria. But in the second half, after our team has been knocked out, I’ll be able to sit back and calmly enjoy the rest of the World Cup.”

Photo: Screenshot from 442ons YouTube channel parodying the match between Russia and Saudi Arabia during the FIFA World Cup 2018.
Credit: Courtesy of 442ons YouTube channel.

Story/photo publish date: 06/10/18
A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.

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