As the World Cup dawns on Russia, the country may finally wake up from its stupor. It has been a somewhat muted welcome to football’s greatest show, an air of apprehension about the whole thing. Of course, it is tempered by the dire straits in which the national team finds itself. But the shadow of Sochi Winter Olympics and the subsequent scandal is not entirely forgotten either.
The Russian public is often depicted as glum by those who tend to generalise, but the national team has always been able to rely on their vociferous support. On Thursday, one can expect a sold-out Luzhniki Stadium for the World Cup opener against Saudi Arabia. However, the experience of Russian football has changed dramatically ever since the country won the right to host the World Cup.
Even though the prospect of playing host to the spectacle brought greater funds, they were not used wisely. The huge outlay on attracting foreign stars to the Russian Premier League, and building massive stadiums in places where football may not be the biggest draw after the World Cup seems unwise now. Instead of preparing a team which could conceivably challenge the giants this summer, Russia neglected its grassroots programmes and scouting. The mess is there for everyone to see.
It was not always like this. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, clubs from the region and the representative national side were a force to reckon with. The team at the 1982 World Cup missed out on a semis spot only on goal difference. With the likes of Rinat Dasaev in goal and Oleh Blokhin in attack, the Soviets could match up with any nation in the world. To offer a contrast, the current Russia side does not even know who its eleven best players are.
Running parallel to the poor administration of football in the country is the near-complete takeover of the sport by private interests. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, club sides were representative of a division of the state. Since the 1990s, though, billionaires or oligarchs have assumed complete control of the football. For example, the workers’ union club Spartak Moscow is now owned by billionaire Leonid Fedun.
While Russian capital has flown into overseas football markets, the footballers stay home. Even a decade ago, the likes of Andrey Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko were lighting up the Premier League. Not anymore. In the World Cup squad, only Villareal’s Denis Cheryshev and the third-choice goalkeeper Vladimir Gabulov (Club Brugge) are stationed abroad. The rise in wages in the Russian Premier League is a prime reason for that, but that has not necessarily boosted the national team’s prospects. Nor have limits on non-Russian players in the domestic league.
In this moment of crisis for Russian football, no less than 11 billion USD have been spent on the World Cup. Many of the stadiums, however, face an unclear future. Four of the host cities do not have a club in the Russian Premier League while Sochi is still awaiting its first professional side. It is unlikely that the stadiums will help recover some of the massive investment poured into them.
So, the World Cup may not exactly prove to be a harbinger of better times for Russia. However, it will not be the first nation to fall victim of FIFA’s dubious legacy programmes. Essentially, the World Cup is a cash-cow for the football governing body and it was apparent even when the USA, Mexico, and Canada bid was awarded the right to host the 2026 competition. The ‘United’ bid’s promise of an 11 billion USD profit for FIFA was a clinching argument, especially when Morocco could promise only 5 billion USD.
But the financial imperatives of hosting the World Cup may not be the most significant issue for the Vladimir Putin regime. It is about the narrative of strength which he and his administration are all too keen to spin. Hosting the World Cup is about convincing visitors of the message which is often relayed to Russian citizen – Russia is stronger and better than what the West will make you believe.
Perhaps, the political game is better understood through Putin’s judo manual which was published over a decade ago. According to the tactic of ‘give way in order to conquer’, you should see yourself as a locked door and your opponent is attempting to open it with his shoulder. As Daniel Soar documented in the London Review of Books,“If he is ‘big and strong enough and rams through the door (that is, you) from a running start, he will achieve his aim’. But here’s the neat bit. If instead of ‘digging in your heels and resisting your opponent’s onslaught’, you unlock it at the last minute, then, ‘not meeting any resistance and unable to stop, your opponent bursts through the wide-open door, losing balance and falling.’ If you’re even more cunning, you can stop being a door and stick out a leg, causing him to trip as he sails through. ‘Minimum effort, maximum effect’, as Russia’s effortlessly effective president says.”
The World Cup, however, threatens to have a limited impact. But that may change if the Russian national side turns around its fortunes on Thursday.
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Updated Date: Jun 14, 2018 15:41 PM