World Cup improves Russia’s image abroad but fails to placate domestic public

Russia team players watch penalties during the quarterfinal match between Russia and Croatia at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Fisht Stadium, in Sochi, Russia, Saturday, July 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

Photo credit: AP, Darko Bandic

The FIFA World Cup taking place in Russia from June 14 to July 15 has turned into something bigger than just a sport event. It has not only become a real celebration for football fans from different countries, but it has also broken negative stereotypes about Russia persistently spread by the West and its mass media after the reintegration of Crimea four years ago.

Over two and a half million tickets have been sold for the World Cup games. Eleven Russian cities are hosting the games, not only Moscow and St. Petersburg, which are well known to foreigners, but also smaller ones such as Samara, Nizhny Novgorod and even the backwater town of Saransk, hardly ever heard of abroad. Russia has showed itself to the world from different angles, and much of it is truly exciting.

Foreign guests have flooded the cities where the games are held. They are singing, dancing and simply enjoying themselves, turning the streets into a never-ending carnival. Latin American fans visibly outnumber their European counterparts, especially Britons, who stayed at home scared by terrible stories told by their own governments and mass media about cold Russia. As a matter of fact, in the first few days of the championship, the weather in the host cities was quite hot, with temperatures rising to 40 degrees Celsius, and cooled off slightly several days later. 

There have been neither clashes between fans nor terrorist attacks during the World Cup. “Journalists write a lot of false scary stories about Russia. You are very nice and polite people. We love you,” British fans told the Russian television channel REN TV. 

“You have deceived us,” British fans wrote in response to their media reports. Almost everybody has agreed that the situation at the championship has been wonderful: everything is well organized, security is excellent, and Russians are actually very friendly and helpful even though some do not speak English.

The World Cup is a lot of joy and fun, Bart Verhaeghe, vice president of the Royal Belgian Football Association, said. He thanked the organizers for the wonderful atmosphere and thorough preparation of the championship. 

“We like it here in Russia. Everyone we have met so far has been very kind and responsive. They always tried to help. There is a little problem with understanding each other as not all people speak English, but no one leaves us fans in trouble,” said Andreas of Denmark.  

Leonel Puig of Uruguay said this was his fourth world cup in a row and he thought it was the best so far. It has become a pleasant surprise for him. 
“The World Cup 2018 will leave a deep impression in the memory of all fans who have come here from all around the world to support their teams. There are a lot of stereotypes about Russia, some of which have been shattered completely by such perfect organization and wonderful celebration the hosts have offered to the world,” the French newspaper Le Monde said.   

Team Russia’s performance has made a real sensation. For the first time in the Soviet and post-Soviet history of football, the national team, considered the weakest among all contenders, made it to the quarterfinals by beating Spain, a dream come true. It almost got through to the semifinals but lost to Croatia in a series of penalty kicks.  

The German newspaper Bild described this as “a Russian fairytale” and “a sensation.” This is probably the main surprise of the championship, with the current champion, Germany, having dropped out in the group stage, said the German magazine Stern, which had been quite critical of the Russian team before the championship and even apologized for that on the cover of one of its issues. In fact, Russia has risen from 70th to seventh place in the FIFA rankings.  

It has become clear that Western leaders did not follow Britain’s Russophobic calls to boycott the championship. The presidents of France and Croatia, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Swedish ministers, and even a Japanese princess have visited Russia. Emmanuel Macron is expected to attend the semifinal game with France playing against Belgium on July 10. Many others would surely have come too if their teams had performed better.

President Vladimir Putin said the World Cup 2018 would improve Russia’s international position. “The so-called people’s journalists, that is, people who work in social networks, helped break many of the stereotypes about Russia,” he said.

Analysts believe that the championship has helped Putin strengthen his geopolitical status. At a meeting in Moscow on July 4, US National Security Adviser John Bolton complimented him by inquiring how the Russian authorities had managed to organize the championship so well. 

Bolton’s talks, followed by a visit to Moscow of a group of Republican senators, preceded the Putin-Trump meeting scheduled for July 16 in Helsinki, the next day after the end of the World Cup in Russia. Clearly, its success will not affect the outcome of the talks but will certainly provide a positive background.
In contrast, the championship has not been so favorable for the domestic situation. Apparently hoping that it would distract people from everyday problems, the government has pushed ahead with a painful, but necessary, pension reform, which has been talked about for years. It will raise the retirement age gradually to 63 from 55 for women and to 65 from 60 for men, starting next year. Another unpopular decision raised the valued added tax from 18 to 20 percent. 

Both decisions pushed the government’s rating all the way down. Two weeks after the pension reform plan was announced, public opinion polls showed that one-third of respondents were ready to take part in protests in the near future. This is a record high number in the last eight years, exceeding even the level of protests against Duma vote rigging in 2011. The number of people wishing to vote for Putin, who received the support of 76.6 percent at the latest presidential election in March of this year, has dropped below 50 percent. Obviously, football did not help.


Elena Vanyna is Independent Media’s stringer in Moscow