As Russia’s dejected footballers trailed off the pitch to scattered jeers in the wake of their squad’s 1-1 draw with a weakened Turkey on June 5, the state television commentator didn’t even try to disguise his disgust.
“What a pity,” he said, “that when we are finally hosting the World Cup, we will be represented by the worst Russian national team ever.” Although Russia faces Uruguay, Egypt and Saudi Arabia – hardly “a group of death” – for a play-off place, less than 50 percent of the country’s football fans believe the team will progress, according to a recent Sports Express magazine poll.
It’s not only Russia’s sporting ambitions that have changed as FIFA’s quadrennial festival of football kicks off in Moscow this week. In 2009, the Russian economy was on the up and Kremlin officials were dreaming of transforming Moscow into a global financial center. That summer, U.S. and Russian officials met in Geneva for a symbolic “reset” of relations. Russia was affluent, confident and increasingly powerful. It seemed reasonable to imagine that the 2018 World Cup, along with the Sochi Olympics, would showcase what Putin described as the“new” Russia that had emerged after the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Flash forward almost a decade and Russia and the West have entered what analysts in both Moscow and Washington are describing as a new Cold War. An economic slump, triggered by Western sanctions and lower global oil prices, has plunged millions of Russians into poverty. Putin, rightly or wrongly, is seen across large swathes of the planet as an evil, warped genius who spends his days plotting how to destroy democracy and cause untold misery to millions. The World Cup, which is costing Russia at least $11 billion, is unlikely to change too many opinions on that score. Instead, the Kremlin will use the World Cup to try to prove that despite Western sanctions, it is not only surviving, but thriving.