The 2018 World Cup is approaching its climax. Despite the loss of the Russian team in the quarter-finals, a festive atmosphere continues across Russia. The World Cup is the one footballing event on the calendar to which no one, no matter how uninterested in football (myself included) can remain indifferent. A competition of this scale is not merely a sporting event, but a political one. This is especially the case with my home country of Russia, which has experienced a difficult phase in its relationship with the West in recent years, to say the least.
The highlight of the World Cup was the arrival of a patchwork of foreign fans; for some Russians – a way to make money, for others – an opportunity to learn about different cultures and first and foremost to show off their own. For Russia it was very important to put its best foot forward and prove at any cost that it isn’t the backward, Soviet-era country that still defines many perceptions. It seems like everything worked out. Even the harshest critics have toned it down. The negativity that defined the narratives in the build up to the world cup have all been replaced by positive ones.
Spy-poisoning and the question of Russia’s hegemonic ambitions is not the topic of conversation in the pubs and the stadiums
Given all the scandals and clashes in the past between Russian and British politicians as well as fans, the World Cup is a competition that seems to unite even the opponents. British fans were being warned about the dangers awaiting them on their arrival to Russia long before the championship started. British media was extremely negative about Russia, which is hardly surprising in the light of recent diplomatic scandals between Moscow and London. But the overly pessimistic predictions of some alarmists turned out not to just be flawed, but to be wrong. Despite the media bashing, despite government warnings, 13,000 of British fans went to the World Cup where they experienced a very warm welcome from Russian people, which came as an unexpected and pleasant surprise to the guests.
Fortunately or unfortunately, Russia does not ignore the Western press and its antagonism towards it. Western media serves as a mirror for Russians, let’s say a distorted mirror. Russians continually ask themselves the question: why is Russia being portrayed this way? Russians take offense if the media is negative, but feels extremly proud and considers their country to be a superpower if Russia is being praised. Indeed, the championship has become an important milestone in the design of the nation’s image, not only abroad but also in Russia itself.
Without question the successful holding of the championship has been a geopolitical victory for the country.
However politically significant the championship might be, people came to watch and enjoy football. For the average football fan the Russian political agenda does not seem to be interesting. Spy-poisoning and the question of Russia’s hegemonic ambitions is not the topic of conversation in the pubs and the stadiums. Rather they would discuss unforeseen success of Russian team over Spain, that gave the whole World Cup a touch of the surreal.
After all scandals and disputes, Russia finally had a chance to prove to the West and the rest of the world that boycotting and isolating the world’s largest country by area was a terrible idea. Without question the successful holding of the championship has been a geopolitical victory for the country. Russia now seems to be enjoying a watershed moment in its politics as well as in football. Though the Russian team could not reach the semi-finals, victory is still Russia’s, as the successful host and an active participant, but whether the sweet aftertaste of the triumph will last long ,only the future will tell. Until then, it is time to enjoy the rest of the football and the hospitality of Mother Russia.