Russia’s World Cup breaking down political barriers
The FIFA World Cup 2018 is gaining momentum and even the biggest skeptics are getting drawn into the extraordinary atmosphere. The euphoria on the streets, how the Russians are treating their guests, the highest levels of organization, matches that keep fans on their toes, the unity around TV sets and in the stadiums — that is the story of the World Cup.
Social media is flooded with videos and photos of happy fans, who were initially very cautious and skeptical about coming to Russia, taking into account the general narrative in the global media about the country, which is far from positive, and existing stereotypes about Russia: Vodka, bears, matryoshkas and balalaikas. The emotions of the visiting football fans are getting stronger firstly due to that extraordinary feeling of excitement over football, and secondly because their negative expectations did not meet the positive reality.
Russian host cities are changing perceptions. Not everybody in Russia initially welcomed the hosting of the World Cup, as they were afraid of possible security issues and football hooligans. So far, the concerns are smashing against the enchanting atmosphere of the tournament, with happy people freely expressing their feelings on the streets and singing. Russians are getting acquainted with the world and the world is getting acquainted with Russia. People who would barely come to Russia in other circumstances are discovering more about a country of which they previously had completely different perceptions. American films traditionally mock Russians, using political rhetoric and propaganda, but they will now face serious difficulties in having such an impact on peoples’ minds.
Being under sanctions and serious external pressure, Russia needed to show that sanctions do not work. What is striking the football fans and what they are sharing in their interviews and social media posts is the many luxury shops, expensive cars on the streets and no signs of a country being in deep crisis. Second, through the World Cup, Russia is building bridges with people, rather than their governments, which are sometimes very hostile. This takes people out of their closed boxes and imaginary world, opening their eyes to the real state of affairs. Traditional Russian hospitality, which is so close to that of the Arab world, is so heartwarming for the people. From now on, the people who have visited Russia will be far less easy to manipulate and misinform.
People who would barely come to Russia in other circumstances are discovering more about a country of which they previously had completely different perceptions.
The most important thing to stress is that the World Cup did not have any political meaning when Russia was announced as host of the 2018 edition. At that time, the country had already taken the course of opening itself up to the world. The political meanings the world’s media is trying to suggest emerged later on, but even now Russia keeps the World Cup away from politics, keeping the football family away from political collisions. Political meanings are added more in the minds of politicians, journalists and observers.
Russia has many enemies dreaming of it failing as host and spoiling the atmosphere of happiness at the World Cup.
It should be admitted that the terrorist threat still remains, no matter the measures undertaken by the security forces: No one is insured against terrorism these days. The incident that happened in central Moscow, near the Presidential Administration of Russia and Red Square, when a taxi drove into people on the pavement, could have been an accident or it could have been something worse.
It would not be surprising if, after the World Cup, Russian security forces came up with an announcement that a significant number of terrorist acts were averted during the tournament. Such information is never announced during public events. The US recently issued a terror alert for the World Cup, but this is not particularly surprising as any big public event in the US or anywhere else can be a reason for such an alert.
Russia is also anticipating a possible blow from Ukraine, which is becoming out of control as it gets closer to next year’s presidential elections, where President Petro Poroshenko and his administration will be an obvious loser, having minimal support from the people according to polls. Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin has openly called for Ukrainians to boycott the tournament.
Despite all the threats and political issues, Russia is so far doing a great job in not allowing anyone to politicize the World Cup. Russia has opened its doors to people from all over the world and it will keep them open to everyone wanting to discover it after the tournament. The World Cup will break down the barriers and walls created by politics. This will be its greatest achievement.
- Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). Twitter: @politblogme