Russia will revel in the World Cup

The venue was one of Moscow’s swankier Italian restaurants, the theme Russia’s 2018 World Cup prospects. Pushing to one side my plate of parmesan, I asked a senior official from Russia’s 2018 bid committee what victory would mean for Russia. His answer was illuminating: ‘England has everything.
You ruled the world. You invented football. You have the richest league. You are solid and strong as a cultural entity,” he told me, pointing out that England even had decent food now.

Russia, by contrast, had had a ghastly 20th century—what with invasion by the Nazis, millions dead in World War II, and communism on top of that. “For us the entire 20th century was an immense sacrifice. We are now building a new country. The World Cup would help us make a different people and a new nation,” he said. If Fifa handed the tournament to Russia it would amount to a “bold political gesture”—a nation-transforming moment to make up for the country’s tragic recent past.

That was three months ago, and I found his arguments persuasive. Despite the allegations of corruption swirling around last week’s Fifa executive committee vote, there is no doubt that—viewed dispassionately—Russia offered a more interesting narrative than England did. For England the World Cup would have been a glorious sporting tournament on home turf. Everyone would have enjoyed it, the England team would have put in another underwhelming performance, the Germans (probably) would have won.

But wouldn’t it have been a bit dull?

Russia, by contrast, had cast 2018 as nothing less than an event of historic proportions. Alexei Sorokin, who led Russia’s bid, described it to me as a defining moment in Russia’s often bumpy post-Soviet journey. Not just that, Sorokin said, but it was an opportunity to overcome the negative clichés written about the country by a hostile Western media, and for Russia to take its deserved place at the world’s top table.

After jetting late into Zurich to join the celebrations, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin took up the same historical theme. “There is an abundance of clichés left behind from previous times, from the Cold War era. These clichés are like flies flying over Europe, buzzing over the ear and scaring people,” he said lecturingly, pronouncing Russia’s rise as an incontrovertible fact.

Putin also reminded his audience that Russia (unlike the improbable 2022 hosts Qatar) had its own footballing traditions. Russians had even played football “in the great patriotic war and in besieged Leningrad”, he added. “That says a lot.”

He observed that not only was Russia “on the upsurge”, but that it would become “even stronger” by 2018. The World Cup, of course, fits perfectly with Putin’s ideology—that Russia is now a resurgent world power, taken seriously and even enviously by the West, rather than an embarrassing 1990s basket case.

Ahead of the Fifa vote, Russia promised a once-in-a-generation investment in infrastructure, transforming sport across the world’s largest country. Soccer fans who travel to Russia in 2018 will find many of the host cities appealing. The most easterly is Yekaterinburg, a modern metropolis in the Urals on the border of Europe and Asia. Then there are other little known gems—Yaroslavl, Kazan and Samara. The distances between the host cities may be enormous—2288km separate Kaliningrad and Yekaterinburg—but Russia’s rail network offers remarkably efficient, and comfortable, overnight trains (though many roads are abysmal).

Last Thursday’s vote was not Fifa’s finest hour. The spectacle of one secretive oligarchy handing the World Cup to another secretive oligarchy was unedifying. But Russia—unlike Qatar—is a plausible winner.

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