Russian President Vladimir Putin claims football and politics have nothing to do with each other, yet the World Cup he kicked off Thursday is about much more than sports. It’s about proving to the world that Russia is a global power broker and not an outcast, that it’s an open, confident and generous nation — and not an isolated, repressive place hobbled by sanctions.
And the beleaguered Russian team’s stunning 5-0 victory in the tournament opener against Saudi Arabia was just what Putin needed to make the point that Russia is ascendant again. He promptly called the much-criticised coach personally to congratulate him on the unexpected win.
Sidestepping deep divisions between his strongman worldview and that of many Western countries, Putin welcomed fans to his “hospitable” nation by inviting them to “make new friends with people who share the same values.”
But critics fear the World Cup will legitimise Putin’s autocratic policies at home and Russia’s actions abroad, from alleged meddling in the US presidential election to annexing the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and a suspected nerve agent attack in Britain. Moscow vehemently denies any interference in the US vote or involvement in the attack against a former Russian spy in Salisbury. In addition, it has defied the West by unleashing a bombing campaign in support of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Racism, homophobia, conflicts over Syria and Ukraine — “all these rebukes have no relation to the World Cup,” his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday. “Today the football dimension is the most important one.”
The month-long World Cup is also about Putin proving to his compatriots that he’s both their best global envoy and a man of the people, who brought the world’s most-watched sporting event to ordinary fans in 11 cities across Russia’s expanse.
That’s especially important for a country that prides itself on athletic prowess but whose last massive sporting event — the 2014 Sochi Olympics — was indelibly stained by revelations of doping so widespread that Russia was banned from this year’s Winter Games.
Geopolitics were front and centre for Thursday’s opener, with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as Putin’s star guest. The two leaders have forged an alliance that has pushed up the global oil price and reshaped the balance of power in the Middle East. Putin welcomed a “friendly global family” of football fans to celebrate the World Cup, but the Kremlin’s guest list showed where Russia’s allegiances lie: the head of the North Korean upper house of parliament, Lebanon’s prime minister and the presidents of Rwanda, Paraguay, Bolivia, Panama and leaders of eight friendly former Soviet republics. Britain’s royal family and top politicians are among those who pointedly stayed away.
Electrical engineer Sergei Tabachnikov, who came to Moscow all the way from the Pacific island of Sakhalin for the opening match, welcomed the international scrutiny that comes with hosting an event of this scale and hoped Russia learns something from it.
“Criticism is necessary. It helps us improve,” he said.
Russian authorities walked a careful line Thursday between hard-line security measures and a veneer of tolerance.
Peter Tatchell, a British gay rights activist was arrested for a protest action near Red Square, but quickly released. The veteran campaigner was led away by police shortly after unfolding a poster that said “Putin fails to act against Chechnya torture of gay people” near Red Square in central Moscow.
Later a Russian fan displayed a rainbow flag during Putin’s speech, despite a broadly enforced law that bans “propaganda” of homosexuality to children. Security forces shrugged it off.
Earlier, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny had denounced the high cost of hosting the World Cup, alleging that much of the money was embezzled by businessmen seen to be close to the president.
Navalny, who walked free on Thursday morning after serving a month-long sentence for organising an illegal protest, said “it’s great that Russia has this festival of football, but I don’t understand why it absolutely had to cost you and me US$14 billion.”
He attacked oligarchs close to Putin who were involved in the construction of airports and stadia, naming billionaires Boris Rotenberg and his brother Arkady as well as Gennady Timchenko.
Russia’s problems do not end in the high-brow world of international relations either. The bloody beating English fans got at the hands of nearly 200 Russian thugs at Euro 2016 in France has plagued preparations as much as any dispute with the West.
Neo-Nazi hooligans who organise mass fights in forests and chant racist slurs at players have lorded over Russian stadiums for years.