(Independent Sport )-A tournament conceived as a bridge between worlds is taking place in a country that has done more than any other to burn those bridges and drive those worlds apart.
Vladimir Putin arrived in Zurich in December 2010 with a smile on his face, a spring in his step and a speech in his pocket. Just hours earlier, Russia had been named as hosts of the World Cup for the first time. Now the Russian president simpered ingratiatingly at the dais before his assembled audience, addressing them in a language he could speak well, but hardly ever did publicly.
“From the bottom of my heart,” he said in tentative but fluent English, “thank you.”
Putin extolled the virtues of football as a force for good in the world. He told the story of how in his hometown of Leningrad (now St Petersburg), while the Nazis laid siege to the city during the Second World War, while bombs rained down, while food and fuel ran out, football continued. He promised to throw the world a safe and comfortable party in 2018. “We also have a couple of offers,” he added, still in English, and sounding very much like a waiter listing the specials. “Visa-free entry. Free-of-charge trips between cities. Besides, you can get to know Russia: a unique country with a long history and a rich culture. Not bad. Not bad at all.”
This was Russia whipping out a giant bouquet and turning on the charm: just a global superpower, standing in front of a large body of football administrators, asking it to love them. It was the same sugary tug on the heartstrings that had won them the bid in the first place, ahead of Spain and Portugal, Belgium and Holland, the combined intellect of David Beckham, David Cameron and Prince William. The pitch, essentially, was this: we’ve changed. Russia wants to open its arms to the world. But we need your help.
Last Friday, Fifa’s World Cup YouTube channel issued a welcome address by President Putin – now eight years older, even more secure in power, Russia’s longest-serving leader since Stalin. The words were similar – football, passion, Russia, unique, great honour – but the delivery could almost have come from a different speaker. Now Putin stood, solemn and unsmiling, in front of a Kremlin backdrop. Apart from a cursory greeting at the end, the entire speech was given in Russian. The message was clear: we’re in charge now.
At which point, you may charitably surmise that over the last eight years, something must have got lost in the translation. Perhaps it was the invasion of the Crimea. Or the time it shot down a passenger jet and killed 298 people. Or the time it tried to murder one of its former spies in the Salisbury branch of Zizzi’s. Or the time it orchestrated an enormous state-sponsored doping programme. Or the time it leapt to the defence of murdering cretin Bashar al-Assad. Or the numerous occasions when it is believed to have interfered in foreign elections. Or the extensive sanctions imposed by many Western countries, or the fact that Russia would flatly deny almost all of the charges laid above. But it’s fair to say, with just a pinch of understatement, that the whole open-arms thing didn’t quite go as planned.
And so, here we are: on the eve of a World Cup that, even in an age of permanent hyperbole and infinite superlative, feels cosmically and unknowably vast. The popular metaphor is of a travelling circus, but the World Cup has long since overgrown that. To its millions of adherents, it’s a sort of footballing supernova: an astonishing natural phenomenon that glows with white heat for a few short weeks, mesmerising us with its rich colours and otherworldly shapes, before collapsing in on itself and disappearing from the sky as quickly as it emerged.
To its detractors, on the other hands, the World Cup is more of a giant, diseased squid: covered in welts and axons and suction cups and parasites, changing colour according to its mood, trailing tentacles and detritus and slime and sediment wherever it goes, settling in a new habitat every four years to feed and suckle as much as it can before abruptly moving on, leaving fetid, inky residue trailing in its wake.
Squid or supernova? Probably a bit of both. But the increasing hardening of Russia’s stance towards the outside world, and especially the West, provides an intriguing lining to a World Cup that will otherwise be defined by footballing geniuses and fervid collectives, by stunning feats of athleticism and outstanding acts of devotion. This, in many ways, is the paradox of Russia’s World Cup: that a tournament conceived as a congress of nations, a bridge between worlds, a celebration of commonality and openness, is taking place in a country that has done more than any other to burn those bridges, to obscure and divide, to drive those worlds ever further apart.
The consequence of this is that Putin’s Russia is no longer overly preoccupied with what the outside world thinks of it, and is certainly under no illusions that it can get Western sanctions lifted or thaw relations with the United States by successfully hosting a football tournament. “The World Cup will not have any significant impact on Russia’s image,” Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, said: “It is just too toxic.”
So as enthralling and captivating as it will be, this World Cup isn’t being hosted for our benefit. It’s largely for domestic consumption; undeterred by the abject state of the national side, which as most Russians realised some time ago, hasn’t got the faintest chance of actually winning the competition. This, by the way, is why comparisons with the 1936 Berlin Olympics are not just wide of the mark but rather lazy: the idea of a supreme athletic master race is rather harder to confect when you’re ranked No 70 in the world and expected to be fighting it out with Egypt to secure a place in the second round.
With no hope of a home triumph, then, the objectives for the tournament have been subtly shifted. It’s become about competence, professionalism, infrastructure, control: the Putin regime proving to its people that even in the face of sanctions, a staggering economy, falling oil prices and the nasty foreign media, it can host one of these big events just as well as any of the Western powers. At an economic forum last month, Putin was asked who would win the World Cup. “The organisers,” he replied, to laughter and applause.
In order to pull it off, Russia has kept an uncharacteristically tight rein on a financial and bureaucratic apparatus more often associated with vast inefficiency, broken promises and a sort of modulated, tendentious chaos. Nine brand new stadiums have been constructed. There have been budget overruns, the odd local row, the odd cut corner, but nothing grotesquely out of keeping with the regular build-up to a global mega-event.
Hooliganism, for all the grisly images emerging from Euro 2016 in France two years ago and the long history of football violence in the country, is not predicted to be a major threat. The decision by the Kremlin to treat the potential for World Cup violence as a national security issue has allowed them to take a firm grip of the problem, with the FSB security agency working with football clubs to eliminate and harass known troublemakers, and criminalising even relatively trivial offences, like setting off a firework at a football game, as acts of terrorism.
It’s proof, I suppose, that Russia can do pretty much whatever it wants to when it sets its mind to it. For those visiting the country from outside, it can seem an intimidatingly intractable place: not so much overtly hostile as deeply, menacingly, wilfully bewildering. A place where words can mean whatever you want them to mean, where a surreal doublethink reigns supreme, where an obscure and cryptic absurdism clings to every transaction like an invisible film. “During the final decades of the USSR no-one believed in Communism and yet carried on living as if they did, and now they can only create a society of simulations,” writes the journalist Peter Pomerantsev in his book, ‘Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia’.
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And so, will there be racism at the World Cup? Will there be violence? Will there be oppression of gay fans and minorities? Will there be transport chaos, price gouging and heavy-handed security? Of course there will. Of course there won’t. It all depends on where you look. That’s the thing about something as unfathomably large as the World Cup: glimpse at it for long enough, and you’ll see pretty much whatever you want to. The girl at the Russian embassy who handled my visa application was the most joyous, chuckling, friendly, hospitable employee of a foreign government I’ve ever met. Maybe they were under special orders to be polite to the World Cup journalists. Maybe she was just, you know, nice. This is the thing about a Russian World Cup: you can never quite be sure that what you’re being shown is genuine or being staged for your benefit, whether what you’re being told is a statement of fact, or simply a cleverly ambiguous formulation of words and facial expressions, a society of masks upon masks, where racism isn’t racism, where free elections aren’t free elections, where – to quote Pomerantsev again – it can feel like “an oligarchy in the morning, a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state by bedtime”.
Remind you of anything at all? The absurdity, the lack of accountability, the quasi-feudal structure, the culture of casual kleptocracy, the malleability of truth? Fifa have always been fastidiously keen on people including their name when describing the tournament, but given the setting and the manner in which it was awarded, this may well be the first time it is appropriate to do so. This does feel, more than most, like the Fifa World Cup: the most Fifa-y, World Cuppiest Fifa World Cup ever. It’s somehow so fitting that a Fifa ethics committee investigation cleared Russia of all wrongdoing with relation to the 2018 bid, albeit after Russia had swiftly and expeditiously destroyed all the bid computers.
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None of this need necessarily make the tournament any less watchable, the football any less enthralling, the sense of occasion any less electric. It won’t make Cristiano Ronaldo’s stepovers any less impressive, Kevin de Bruyne’s through balls any less perceptive. One of the most stubbornly tenacious traits of sporting impropriety – unlike, say, political crisis or financial scandal – is that there’s always the sport to spirit the spotlight away from the impropriety. It’s why the next month will be unashamedly decadent, uproarious, divisive, entrancing, fun. There comes a time when, for most observers at least, the geopolitics stops and the football starts. Russia will host its World Cup, we’ll all watch it, and it will probably be fine. Just try not to look too closely, or you’ll see something you’re not supposed to.