France may have taken the 2018 World Cup, but in my opinion, it was Russian President Vladimir Putin that could prove the biggest winner of the tournament.
Russia had been under Western sanctions due to its annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Worse still, Moscow’s relations with major Western powers had also hit rock bottom following the alleged poisoning of a former Russian spy on British soil back in March this year.
During the run-up to the World Cup, things looked so bad between Russia and the West that it seemed almost as if the Cold War era had returned.
In fact before the tournament kicked off, Britain had, at one point, vowed to boycott it, and other Western powers quickly rallied behind London.
For that reason, not a single Western leader attended the opening game.
At first, Britain’s containment policy against Russia seemed to be working quite well.
Yet as major European teams, except for Germany, had all advanced to the knockout stage, Russophobia among the Western public quickly gave way to mass excitement, and soon it had become increasingly meaningless to continue to boycott Russia.
As a result, state leaders of Sweden, Belgium, Spain, Croatia and France all flocked to Russia to root for their teams and watch the games.
In particular, the appearance of French President Emmanuel Macron at the VIP stand alongside President Putin during the final match last Sunday was an unmistakable indication that Britain’s attempt to contain Russia had ended in complete failure.
To be honest, Theresa May could have felt thankful that the English team didn’t make it to the final match. It is because if it did, either she herself or some royal family member would probably have had to fly to Russia and attend the game.
Putin deserves credit for being able to secure the smooth execution of the World Cup tournament despite international political controversies.
As the entire world was absorbed by the games, not much media attention was paid to another alleged poisoning of a British couple earlier this month.
During the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Russia was given a bad press in the West over its political system, human rights violation, and even the mass killing of stray dogs by local authorities.
Even though these issues still pretty much persisted during the World Cup, it was apparent that their novelty wore off as far as the Western media was concerned.
Besides, the fact that this year’s World Cup was a lot better than the previous ones in Brazil in 2014 and South Africa in 2010 in terms of organization, facilities and security control, it has definitely helped Moscow win international recognition of the so-called “Russian model”, something that Putin badly needs right now.
As a matter of fact, the biggest challenge facing Putin at this point isn’t how to consolidate his power, which he already did, but rather, how to maintain his high popularity amid the currently sluggish economy.
Evoking patriotic sentiment among his fellow Russians is obviously an effective means by which he can accomplish that.
Before the World Cup, the majority of Russians didn’t have high hopes for their own national squad, which is understandable given the fact that Russia had the lowest FIFA ranking among all the 32 teams.
This, to some extent, also constituted some sort of an “expectation management” among the Russians.
Nevertheless, as the host country, it would have been both unimaginable and impossible for Russia not to interfere in the arrangements of the tournament so as to give its team an advantage, fair or unfair, over others.
For example, a retired soccer star had pointed out before the tournament that it was hardly a coincidence that Russia and Saudi Arabia, a well-known pushover, were drawn together in Group A.
Over the past decade, Russia has hired quite a number of famous foreign coaches such as Guus Hiddink and Fabio Capello in a bid to enhance the strength of its national soccer team.
Unfortunately, despite all the money spent, the Russian team had shown little improvement until Stanislav Cherchesov, a former player on the Russian national team, was put in charge in 2016.
And thanks to his military style of management, the Russian team has seen remarkable progress under his leadership, and eventually reached the quarter-finals in this year’s World Cup.
The satisfactory performance of the Russian team in the World Cup has not only boosted patriotic feelings across the country, it also helped curb, at least for now, intense domestic grievances against the rampant crony capitalism of the Putin regime and a backlash from the opposition against a recent tax hike passed by the Duma.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 17
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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