FIFA World Cup, Russia 2018: an appreciation

When the month-long football World Cup tournament in Russia ended on Sunday, 15 July, it was entirely overshadowed in the news and global commentary by coverage of preparations for the summit meeting of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki the next day. In turn, the summit was immediately followed by a firestorm of criticism of Trump that precluded any further thoughts being given to the World Cup in US and Western media.

However, in Russia the FIFA tournament most decidedly has not disappeared from ongoing news cycles in the two weeks that have passed since the closing ceremony.  On several occasions  Vladimir Putin has used public appearances to draw a line under the month of football matches, to congratulate all those who participated in making the World Cup what FIFA President Gianni Infantino declared to have been “the best World Cup ever.”   The culmination was a televised reception in the Kremlin a couple of days ago to which the national team players, their wives and trainers were invited.  The most valuable  defense players and strikers in the matches were especially honored, and the head trainer Stanislav Cherchesov was warmly praised by Putin for his leadership qualities as well as excellent tactical guidance in the matches.

As many observers have noted, by its performance on the field, by perseverance in giving their all in contests against the world’s best proven teams…and winning, the Russian team surprised a skeptical Russian public and stoked national pride. For the first time since Soviet days, a Russian team had made it to the quarter finals. They left the tournament with heads held high following a penalty goal loss to Croatia in what was otherwise a very well-played game which could have gone either way.

In the commentary of sports professionals, politicians and journalists during the World Cup and at its conclusion, there were three dimensions to the unquestioned success of the tournament in Russia.  One was the valor of the home team. The second was the warm reception and openness of the Russian people: their volunteers manning the fan zones in each city, the staff in hotel receptions, in eateries, in taxis, in public transport, wherever the visitors came into contact with them.  This hospitality constituted highly effective “public diplomacy” that proceeded independently from the government authorities, even if it was encouraged from on high.

The third dimension was the organizational skills the hosts demonstrated during the month long tournament. This was precisely what Vladimir Putin identified as the likely distinguishing element of this World Cup before the games opened, when the prospects of the home team could in no way justify the effort and expense that had been invested in the World Cup.

Precisely this managerial competence is essential to any reading  of Putin’s Russia and in particular of its claims to a seat at the world’s board of governors, quite apart from the country’s nuclear arsenal or inherited status as Permanent Member of the UN Security Council.  This dimension is well outside the scope of interest of our political scientists, who, to a man, are focused on gross GDP and demography when drawing up their tables of national power and so systematically overlook Russia as a global leader by merit. And yet, in the domain of business, in the running the national economy, in military potential and Hard Power the organizational skills Russia so effectively put to work during the World Cup over eight years of gestation are decisive.

It is worth noting the remarks made by International Olympics Committee president Thomas Bach at the closing of the World Cup on Sunday, 15 July.  After leading the charge against Russia for its alleged doping programs and abuses at the Sochi Olympics, after avoiding any meeting with Putin since 2014, Bach, who was the guest of FIFA President Infantino for the final France-Croatia play-off in Moscow,  now had only complimentary words for the Russian people, whom he called “kind and hospitable hosts.” This, he said, had “changed perceptions” of Russia in many countries.  Moreover, in line with my thesis in this essay, Bach added: “Russia has really proved once again that the country can create such large-scale events due to exceptional organizing skills.”  That these were not empty words of flattery, we can see from the specific recommendations they led to.

According to a release by the International Olympics Committee, in his chat with Vladimir Putin at the stadium, Bach and the Russian President agreed “that in the interests of Russian athletes, now was the time to re-enter into a dialogue to look to the future and to bring Russian sport fully back in the international sports community.”

In the last part of this essay we will return to this issue of organization.  But first I direct the reader’s attention to how the US-led global media covered the World Cup from start to finish, because it was very different from what one might have anticipated.

In fact, I begin my survey in the period preceding the start, since what would come was already clear then.

Heading into the tournament, there was remarkably little negative reporting on Russia and its preparations as host such as had poisoned the atmosphere in the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.  This is not because US and Western media have become kinder towards Russia over the past four years. Indeed, quite the opposite is true: a widespread campaign of vilification of Putin’s Russia has grown ever more malignant year by year following the reunification with Crimea in March 2014 and Russian intervention in the Ukraine’s Donbass insurgency that summer.

The fairly neutral US reporting on the World Cup ahead of its opening may be explained in relation to the US bid to host the same World Cup in 2026. That bid was to be adjudicated by the gathering of all FIFA associations in Moscow on the day before the opening of the football tournament. Any malicious attacks on Russia would necessarily put in jeopardy if not sideline entirely the US chances. Moreover, though football (soccer) is the world’s favorite sport, it is still a minor sport in the USA and the prestige it carries in the USA cannot be compared to the Summer or Winter Olympic Games.

Once the matches got under way, US reporting moved from neutral to enthusiastic as regards the hospitality and the new or massively reconstructed stadiums of the 10 cities across European Russia in a 2500 km swathe from Kaliningrad in the northwest to Sochi in the southeast where the matches were held. Warnings about the likelihood of hooliganism, racist outbursts and rough treatment of visitors from the LGBT community sprinkled the reporting of some US media initially, but only briefly. The reality of the welcoming hosts and vast numbers of foreign fans cheering in gratitude for the festive atmosphere that the Russian organizers invited and supported took the preponderant share in US reporting.

Meanwhile the European press, having received no guidelines from Washington, took to the sporting event in non-ideological manner, offering their readers scoops about the cities where the respective country matches would be held, gossip on the condition of their national teams, and the like.

I call attention in particular to coverage by the two US newspapers of record which also happen to be leading the anti-Russian hysteria ever since 2014, if not earlier:  The Washington Post and The New York Times. In quoting their positive statements, I do not mean to say that these newspapers and their journalists stopped Russia-bashing entirely during the football World Cup. However, in relation to the football tournament they published texts favorable to Russia in a way that has been unthinkable for years.

Let us consider, for example, the 26 June submission of Washington Post Moscow correspondent Amie Ferris-Rotman etitled “For the World Cup, the Russian people are all in, win or lose.”  The opening paragraph sets up the largely positive account that follows:

“Russia is on a winning streak at the World Cup, and it has little to do with its team on the field. Since the tournament kicked off nearly two weeks ago, chants for one country have dominated the stadiums, rising above the din or supporters from around the globe: ‘Ros-si-ya!’ Even when the host nation is not playing, those three syllables are noisily spouted morning and night by energetic fans of all ages.”

“Finally, a Loss for Russia. But only on the Field,” an article by New York Times reporter Rory Smith the same day has similar upbeat remarks, pointing to certain characteristics of the team on the field: “style, panache and joy – traits not exactly associated with the country’s soccer traditions, and, to some extent, not attributed to the country as a whole.”

Speaking of the stadium in provincial Samara, Smith tells us: “Inside, the stadium was faultless. Everything had turned out O.K., and much the same can be said for the team and the country….[Russia] has staged the carnival, to use the cliché, that the World Cup is supposed to be.”  He observes that Russians appear to be enjoying the party as much as the guests.

A little more than a week later, on 5 July, in their article “How Russia Gave Itself a Facelift for the World Cup” for The Wall Street Journal, another newspaper which has done its fair share of denigrating Russia, Anatoly Kurmanaev and Andrew Beaton summarize what they have seen on the ground as follows: “This World Cup has shaken the Russian stereotypes for the masses of foreign visitors, who encountered first-world infrastructure, impeccable planning and friendly people. “

These impressions of foreign journalists are supported by statistics published by Russian authorities, by wire services, by NGOs. To be sure, during and even after the World Cup there have been unexplained contradictions or inconsistencies on the numbers of visitors or expenses. But I will set down here some of these data even if they are not perfect, because they give scale to what are otherwise anecdotal reports.

Russia opened its doors and the world came in. There were between one and two million foreign visitors holding tickets to the matches. More than two million foreign visitors were registered in the cities hosting the games. In Moscow alone, there were a total of 4 million visitors during the month of the World Cup, which is the equivalent of the normal visitor count in a whole year. Of that number, one half were foreigners.

Moving back from quantitative to qualitative measurement of the impact of the World Cup on Russia’s supposed “international isolation” due to post-Crimea Western sanctions, more than twenty heads of state or government came to Moscow for the opening. And the list of dignitaries who came thereafter as the national teams moved into the final competition included Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres, French President Emmanuel Macron, Belgian King Philippe and Foreign Minister Reynders.  The only country whose football team was not supported by government officials arriving for matches was Britain, which declared a boycott of the Games and braved the indignation of many British fans over its politicization of sport.

The various logistical challenges which the Russian government faced and mastered as it prepared for the World Cup’s month-long festival of football strains the imagination.  Host cities stretched from one end of European Russia to another. Some of the host cities were well off traditional tourist itineraries and were in need of considerable upgrading of transport facilities, hotels and training for staff. Fan zones were created in all the host cities and elsewhere across the country. Transportation had to be arranged from city to city, meaning upgrading rail facilities and in selected cities, building new airports. Additional flights were put on where necessary and flight tickets were issued gratis or against nominal payment.

Russia has visa free travel arrangements with much of Latin America and Asia.  But none exist with North America and Western Europe, from which many of the inbound football fans would be coming. The solution was creation of a World Cup “passport,” a cutting-edge technological platform providing the holders of tickets to the matches with a document that served as multiple-entry visa, seat ticket in stadiums, entitlement to local transportation and train or plane connections from Moscow to the remote locations.

Surely when the World Cup closed, the Russian leadership could breathe a collective sigh of relief that it had passed without incidents of hooliganism, not to mention terrorist attacks. To ensure security under conditions of unparalleled transparency and openness, Russia mobilized some 100,000 policemen in the host cities and deployed 10,000 military servicemen equipped with state of the art intelligence techniques.  Potential trouble-makers from abroad were denied entry into the country. Every World Cup venue had airport type security screening.

And yet, as all journalists remarked, the security arrangements were not heavy-handed. Police, in particular, were trained to be tolerant of extravagant behavior, public consumption of alcohol that is normally prohibited in Russia and other signs of high spirits of the visitors from across the globe. That this actually was implemented, not only under the noses of the authorities in Moscow but in all the provincial venues of the matches is a testament to effective managerial controls.

After the World Cup ended, The Financial Times published a kick-the-tires article that raised questions other Western media had brought up earlier in the tournament:  what will become of the new stadiums, will they not be white elephants as has happened to infrastructure built for so many international sports events worldwide?

In fact, the estimated $6 billion in investments in stadiums and an equal amount in new airports and other transport infrastructure is in total just one-fifth of the cost of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and there is reason to believe that even that huge investment will pay off over time, given that Sochi has now become the number one  year-round resort destination in the Russian Federation, with top quality alpine skiing facilities and world class hotels and beaches. In addition, Sochi is now a major convention center for national and international events.

In the case of the FIFA Cup facilities, several of the locations, in particular Saransk and Kaliningrad, would ordinarily not justify great expectations given the small size of local populations and hitherto rather limited attendance at local football matches.  However, in a speech delivered on 20 July, Vladimir Putin committed the federal government to support the running costs of all the football stadiums participating in the FIFA Cup for a period of five years. During that time, private owners will be lined up to operate the facilities at a profit for multi-purpose use.

The construction of the stadiums has been done to the highest standards of safety, functionality and aesthetics, with due thought given to their integration into their urban surroundings. I was persuaded of this a couple of weeks ago when I viewed the new St Petersburg football stadium from a river cruise ship in the Neva.  It is absolutely magnificent by itself and it is served by the new highways that otherwise direct traffic from the city center (Vasilievsky Island) either east or west along the Gulf of Finland.  The double suspension bridge across the Neva associated with this route is a spectacular piece of engineering.

Then again, the investment in FIFA infrastructure has to be seen in the context of ongoing massive Russian infrastructure investments in general. The most widely publicized success in this domain earlier this year was the opening of the Crimea  bridge connecting the peninsula to the Russian mainland across the Kerch Strait.  That was another feat of engineering and management, with completion six months ahead of schedule so as to serve the 2018 tourist influx in Crimea.

As was expected in late 2017, the next spectacular transportation link that the President has tentatively approved during this past week is a bridge linking the island of Sakhalin with the Russian mainland.  The bridge will serve as a major integrating force in the Russian Far East and will prepare the way for eventual connection with the Japanese island of Hokkaido when Prime Minister Abe or one of his successors finally is ready to sit down with the Russians and sign a peace treaty.

But apart from these extraordinary inventions of engineering, the more general federal highway program has been producing tangible changes to long-haul road traffic, both for private cars and trucking.  It is now quite normal for Russians to consider driving the 2500 km from St Petersburg to Sochi or the Crimea for their summer vacations, just as transcontinental automobile travel became an everyday phenomenon after President Eisenhower’s National Interstate and Defense Highways Act got underway. Moreover, in his policy directives to the cabinet in the month following his election to another six-year term, Vladimir Putin called for manifold increase in spending on roads.

To summarize, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been busy doing what governments should do in the view of liberal economists:  creating infrastructure that will improve the lives of people and the efficiency of business.  Of course, some of the most visible investments have a special geopolitical rationale. But none are white elephants, all are completed and function as intended.  Seen from this angle, the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia was just one more proof of the high competence of the Russian Government, with world-beating organizational skills.

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2018

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Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published on 12 October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide. See the recent professional review    For a video of the book presentation made at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on 7 December 2017 see

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