As Koke missed the second penalty and the whole of Russia erupted in a frenzy worthy of a Tolstoy epic Stanislav Cherchesov, with a face chiselled out of Russian granite, barely broke his Stakhanovite visage. It’s reported that the head coach had received a call from Putin before the match for some “encouraging words”. Steely Stan has bought some time now his team remain in the championship and his transfer to a club in a far-flung peninsula neighbouring Mongolia has been delayed. One thing we can be sure about: Vladimir Putin is on top of this world cup.
No one should be surprised that the Russian state is tightly controlling this opportunity to shine on the world stage. Yet the risks of hosting the tournament have long hovered over the Federation. Even before relations between Russia and much of Europe soured in the last year, the alignment of quasi-authoritarian country with an organisation mired in corruption did not sounds like a marriage of virtue. And nor did Putin hold back. Fully aware of his toxic reputation in the West, he put himself at the forefront of the championship’s promotion in a way perhaps only his bosom buddy Donald could rival.
Although the calls for boycotting the World Cup did not ultimately amount to any significant protest it is notable that this year sees the number of official sponsors down from eight in 2014 to five, with Anglo-American brands like Johnson & Johnson and BP among those to pull out. But this gap was easily filled by non-Western brands, notably Chinese companies such as Wanda and Vivo. This goes to the heart of why those prophesising disaster in Russia got it so wrong. Outside of Europe much of the world doesn’t care about Russian aggression or its record of LGBTQ rights. The show was always going to go on. And what was the UK media to do but fall in line or miss out on the biggest sporting event of the year? Valiant efforts from the likes of Peter Tatchell to keep protest on the agenda notwithstanding, few in the media establishment have risen to the challenge.
Credit where credit’s due, the Russian state has ensured a safe, party-friendly atmosphere for fans. Any whiff of racism or hooliganism has been stomped out. Critics who warned about violence have (so far) been shown up to be scaremongering. The country that gave us the Potemkin village has gone full-scale with turning on the hospitality. The global facing Russian media has also been on best behaviour. Rather than their default mode of attacking critical international voices channels such as the normally barb-witted Russian Embassy UK’s twitter account have celebrated the host nation’s rival sides. RT (Russia Today) has bolstered its footie credentials by recruiting star pundits such as Stan Collymore and Jose Mourinho while also attempting to trend-up with a new Vice-inspired millennial online channel #ICYMI. As we now know from the various exposes of election-swaying bots the Russians know how to weaponise social media.
Will any of this staunch the bad blood that has grown between the West, particularly Britain post-Skripal, and Russia? Nyet– it’s only football. But that is not the point of Putin’s world cup PR exercise. It not just the Kremlin that cares little about what the Western commentariat thinks- much of Russia has developed a thick skin of incredulity when exposed to criticism, whether it be over Ukraine or the recent poisoning in Salisbury. Why else would Putin have the audacity to invite disgraced former Fifa boss Sepp Blatter to watch some games with him? This show is for a domestic audience. Even if their national team crashes out of the Quarter Finals they will have achieved more than anyone expected, and Russian football can expect a lucrative jolt in sponsorship deals and international credibility. Despite the Fifa scandals, despite the much-derided host choices of Russia and Qatar, the greatest tournament in the world proves that it has lost none of magic.