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Russia's World Cup: Soccer clash to serve Putin's goals

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the World Cup is the perfect chance to score prestige points ­before a local audience. How the ­competition ­will affect his increasingly frosty relations with the rest of the world is beside the point, writes John Meagher

Watchful eye: children playing football underneath an image of Vladimir Putin
Watchful eye: children playing football underneath an image of Vladimir Putin
Putin with football icons Pele and Diego Maradona
Young star: Northern Ireland’s Norman Whiteside holds the record for the youngest ever player

Vladimir Putin has made no secret of the fact he is not a devoted football fan. His sport of choice is judo - and he is said to be gifted at a discipline that requires brawn and brains.

But football was on his mind in 2009 - almost a decade after he first was elected to power in Russia - and he decided that his country would do its utmost to win the bid for the 2018 World Cup.

England had made no secret of its desire to host the world's most watched sporting competition from the mid-2000s, but its bid fell at the first hurdle. In the end, only a joint pitch from Spain and Portugal came close to denying Putin's dream of having his nation host the World Cup for the first time.

The result of the ballot was made public on December 2, 2010, but most of the immediate coverage was devoted to the shock decision to award the 2022 tournament to Qatar, also announced on the same day.

Later, the English Football Association alleged that the Russians had bribed members of FIFA's committee. It was alleged that four members of the executive committee had requested bribes to vote for England, and there was outrage when then FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, revealed that it had already been arranged before the vote that Russia would win.

Russia's insistence that it won the tournament cleanly was not helped by the controversy surrounding the Garcia Report in 2014. The internal investigation led by an American lawyer was withheld from public release by Hans-Joachim Eckert, FIFA's head of adjudication on ethical matters.

Eckert instead released a shorter revised summary, and his - and therefore FIFA's - reluctance to publish the full report caused Michael J Garcia to resign in protest.

Now as the tournament is upon us - it opens in Moscow on Thursday when the hosts play minnows (in footballing terms) Saudi Arabia - the allegations of wrong-doing have been rekindled, especially in the UK. Former prime minister David Cameron has been one of the most high-profile figures to claim Russia secured the World Cup though corruption.

"Corruption was the blockage to so many of the things that we wanted to achieve," he said. "We wanted to lead the world in great sporting events that bring people together. Yet how did Russia end up winning the bid for the 2018 World Cup? I will let you fill in the blanks on that one."

Cameron's words come at a time of wretched diplomatic relations between the UK and Russia, the worst since the height of the Cold War - and one that few could have anticipated back in 2010 when Putin appeared to be an enthusiastic player in international affairs.

Throughout the 2000s, Putin had transformed Russia, helping to usher in an era of great economic wealth and - in the eyes of the West - openness. The vast country become a must-visit destination for tourists, and major sporting events - such as the Manchester United-Chelsea Champions League Final in Moscow in 2008 - were hailed as brilliantly run.

As the acclaimed English football writer and Financial Times journalist Simon Kuper writes: "Putin must have imagined the 2018 World Cup as his version of China's 2008 Beijing Olympics: a coming-out party for a well-off, confident, modern power."

But since then, Russia's reputation in the West has declined sharply following its wars in Ukraine and Chechnya and its continued aggression in Syria. There has been the Olympic doping scandal - which has helped tarnish track and field globally. And there's the ongoing controversy over its meddling in Western elections, including, notoriously that of Donald Trump in 2016.

Meanwhile, according to a Gallup poll, seven out of 10 Americans view Russia unfavourably. It's perhaps just as well that the US failed to qualify for the World Cup, having suffered a shock defeat to Trinidad and Tobago.

A similar poll among Britons may not make for happier reading for the Russians. Relations have reached rock bottom following allegations that the Kremlin was behind the poisoning of ex-Russian spy and MI6 double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury.

British intelligence accused Russia of using the Novichok nerve agent developed by the Soviets, a claim angrily rejected by the Kremlin. The UK - and several other EU countries including the Republic of Ireland - expelled Russian diplomats in the wake of the controversy and Russia responded in kind.

Diplomacy was not helped by foreign minister Boris Johnson when he compared the Russia World Cup with that of Hitler's Berlin Olympics in 1936. Up to 20 million soldiers and civilians in the former USSR died in the Second World War.

"It was a very foolish thing to say," says Constantin Gurdgiev, adjunct assistant professor of finance at Trinity College Dublin. "And, partly as a result of that, the sentiment towards the UK amongst ordinary Russians is very strongly negative."

The Russian academic, who divides his time between Dublin and California, where he is a finance professor at Middlebury College, Vermont, believes the World Cup is unlikely to lead to a thawing in the frosty relations between the West and Russia, but could well boost national pride.

"When it comes to the World Cup, the message from the Kremlin will be inward, rather than outward. It will show Russians that the country can stage a massive tournament like this that can be as good as - if not better than - anyone else and that will likely be a source of pride, especially for younger people."

Gurdgiev says there is a "big disconnect" between young and older Russians. "It's something the (Putin-backed) Nashi programme had tried to address," he says, "and the World Cup can help reinforce the idea of a stronger, sport-oriented nation."

Gurdgiev adds that the tournament may help ordinary Russians to believe that Putin has refocused his efforts on domestic matters, rather than events further afield. "There have been no big domestic reforms in recent times," he says, adding that it was very different in the initial years of his presidency.

The Moscow-based journalist Jason Corcoran also believes that the World Cup will help Putin to connect with his people. "It's primarily for a domestic audience," he says. "Putin doesn't seem to care about his image in the West. But the World Cup is an opportunity for Russians to stand tall."

Corcoran says the Russians are capable of putting on major events to compare with the best in the world. "I was at the Sochi (Winter) Olympics in 2014 and it was exceptionally well run," he says. "So I see no reason why the World Cup also won't pass off without a hitch."

Contrary to fears among many - especially English fans - Corcoran does not believe the ferocious hooligan problems that pockmarked Euro 2016 in France will be tolerated, despite Russian troublemakers being the primary cause of the strife two years ago.

"Putin won't stand for it," he says. "I certainly can't see any problems with hooligans in big cities like Moscow and St Petersburg, but who knows about more remote parts of the country?"

Not all Russians are enthusiastic about the money-sapping tournament being held in a country where there is still pockets of abject poverty.

Says Corcoran: "There is frustration about corruption, and how certain stadia have gone way over budget. But it's almost a resigned frustration, because the tendering process tends to be so corrupt in Russia anyway.

"Ultimately, though, Russian people are very patriotic and most will get behind this World Cup even though the national team is one of the worst ever and the average Russian tends to be far more passionate about ice hockey than football."

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