Russia is World Cup’s winner despite team’s defeat
Russia will not win the prized World Cup trophy this year, but its squad came so close to reaching the semifinals on Saturday that millions of Russians celebrated this historic feat. In fact, Russia has been in a celebratory mood since the championships kicked off on June 14, and the euphoria is expected to last well beyond the July 15 final match in Moscow. It doesn’t matter who becomes the world’s new champion, Russia has already come out as a winner both at home and abroad.
No amount of money — it actually cost more than $11 billion to host the event — could have bought Russia the kind of global publicity that it has enjoyed for a month, as billions of people around the globe followed the 64 matches that were held in 11 Russian cities. And Russia did its best to impress: In the view of many experts, this was one of the most well-organized World Cup events in decades.
The event has allowed the Russians to parade a number of amazing stadiums in some of the most beautiful cities in Europe, like Moscow, St. Petersburg and Sochi. But, more importantly for the organizers, the stereotypical image of Russia as an inhospitable, harsh and unsafe country has been dashed. There have been no major incidents reported as Russia’s 11 host cities welcomed tens of thousands of fans from all over the world. Moscow alone expected a million visitors during the event.
The World Cup has provided Putin with much-needed respite to deal with domestic challenges and reposition of Russia on the global stage.
Russia, which is hosting the tournament for the first time in its history, used the occasion to invest heavily in its infrastructure, public transport systems, hotels, amenities, parks and other facilities. It has offered an opportunity to showcase a new image for a country that is emerging from decades of economic chaos and internal crises. So far, it’s been a worthy investment. But, aside from the economic rewards of hosting the World Cup, the political gains were evident and immediate.
This has already been a particularly good year for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who won a fourth term in office in March. Furthermore, and despite biting US and European economic sanctions following Putin’s move to annex the Crimean peninsula in 2014, Moscow has managed to improve its global standing; striking an alliance with Turkey and Iran, securing a major victory for the embattled regime in Syria and seeing its traditional nemesis, the United States, grapple with internal and global challenges following the controversial election of Donald Trump in 2016. Even more so, as Trump and Putin prepare for their first official summit in Helsinki on July 16, the transatlantic alliance between the US and Europe is looking more fragile than ever.
In addition, Russia’s hosting of the World Cup has shifted attention from Putin’s own problems at home, especially his political opponents and the country’s contentious human rights record. With the Russian team, the lowest-ranked in the tournament, overcoming low expectations to excel, there is a renewed sense of national pride across the largest country on Earth; one that Putin is most likely to employ to bolster his power and spread his vision.
The defeated Russian team was given a heroes’ welcome in Moscow on Sunday. Russian aspirations and hopes, reminiscent of those felt during the heyday of the rump Soviet Union, were suddenly hovering at unprecedented levels. A sense of national self-confidence was restored. The World Cup in Russia has provided the Kremlin with much-needed respite to deal with domestic challenges and reposition the country on the global stage.
Ever since the seismic collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, an emerging and fragile Russian federation sought to be recognized as a major global player. It grappled with civil wars, territorial splits, economic crisis, corruption and oligarchic power struggle. Under Putin, a new vision for Russia in the 21st century was launched. There is no doubt that Trump’s surprising victory and his ensuing spats with allies such as Canada, Mexico, the EU and NATO have given Putin the opportunity to solidify his position on the Ukraine, Crimea, Syria and the Baltic states. His summit with Trump will be seen as recognition by the US of Russia as an equal and of its resurgence and influence.
Russia’s World Cup event was not without surprises. Almost all the favorites, like Germany, Brazil, Spain and Argentina, were knocked out earlier than expected. Aside from England and France, two former winners of the coveted trophy, there is a high possibility that a new champion, either Croatia or Belgium, might emerge. If that occurs, it will add to the uniqueness and excitement of this year’s championships. This could be the year of the underdog and what better venue for that to happen than in Russia; a nation that is reclaiming its place on the world stage after years of disarray?
- Osama Al Sharif is a veteran journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010