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To Russia with not much love
It's hard to blame Putin for his lack of enthusiasm for the World Cup - there are several ways this thing can go wrong, Cathal Kelly writes

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Saturday, June 9, 2018 – Page S1

The Russians have a word for the Western habit of rubbishing their national efforts - zloradstvo. Its literal meaning is "evil revelling."

Russia won the rights to hold this year's World Cup in 2009.

At the time, it must have seemed like a good idea. Russia was coming up in the world's estimation. Vladimir Putin not quite so Bond villainous. It was already looking forward to holding the Winter Olympics in five years' time.

A country that had always hoped to express its virility through athletic success was having a global moment.

Once Sochi got under way, the zloradstvo began. From the side-by-side toilets to the $11-billion mountain road that just happened to run up to one of Putin's dachas, Russia wasn't looking so hot.

It's the usual way of things that as a major sporting event draws to a close, the hosts start doing the dishes hoping you'll get the hint. They've grown tired of company.

That grumpiness suffused Sochi the moment you got off the plane.

The first English words I remember a Russian saying to me at the Sochi airport were: "This is problem."

This became a sort of all-purpose rejoinder. Why doesn't my key work? "This is problem." Where have my shirts gone? "This is problem." Good morning. "This is problem."

A few years, a few wars and a few doping scandals later, the situation has deteriorated somewhat.

Welcome to the World Cup nobody wants. At this point, not even Russia.

The maximum leader has made that pretty plain. Putin has been a peripheral figure in the lead-up, making little secret of the fact that the tournament features two things he doesn't like - soccer and strangers.

The marketing goons somehow persuaded him to do a promotional video with FIFA president Gianni Infantino. The pair of them are pictured in suits, arms stiffly at sides, kicking the ball around Putin's cavernous Kremlin office. As you do.

The short bit is edited so that while Infantino displays his wobbly juggling skills, we never actually see Putin receive the ball.

Presumably because he can't.

(He is, in fairness, a hockey man. Though he doesn't look that much better on skates.)

It's hard to blame Putin for his growing lack of enthusiasm.

There are several ways this thing can go wrong, some more likely than others.

The first is organizational chaos. Russia has managed to get the stadiums completed in good time - never a given with these things. It has the infrastructure, although it is unlikely to be strained.

As the political temperature dipped toward zero, interest dried up. The organizing committee currently says it expects "up to" one-and-a-half million travelling supporters. That would represent the same number as travelled to Brazil four years ago, but seems unlikely.

Just to boost interest, the World Health Organization recently advised all foreigners to update their measles vaccine before heading over. Joga bonito! The good news here is that the World Cup is no longer a live event. It's a sound stage built for the billions who watch on television. Russia won't care if anyone shows up. It just leads to problems.

For instance, seeing those people getting their heads kicked in by guys in skull bandanas on CNN.

The last time Russia held a big sporting event, the panic in the lead-up was over black-widow suicide bombers. This time, it's hooligans.

These are the straight-edge, kung-fu-fighting types who ran amok at Euro 2016, prompting one Russian legislator to enthuse, "Well done, lads!"

All would-be rioters have since been warned to enjoy their hobby away from the cameras. Many have retreated to staged fights in wooded areas. So word to the wise - don't camp.

However hard authorities crack down, the combination of political tension, rampant jingoism and huge amounts of liquor almost guarantees some sort of outrage. The global media will be primed to make a meal of any skirmishes. From the patriotic flexing point of view, the last problem is the most pressing - soccer. The Russian national team is bad. Not just poor, but abysmal.

The World Cup hosts are always at a disadvantage because automatic qualification means they get no competitive games during two years of lead-up. Some get a mulligan because they are not traditional powerhouses.

But Russia has a laurelled, if distant, soccer tradition. The Russians were once great. Now they are reduced to fumbling around the pitch trying to lose with dignity and not always accomplishing it. The low point was being run over in Moscow this past March by Brazil's B team.

Currently ranked 70th in the world, Russia hasn't won a game in eight months. Only one thing sustains a World Cup's atmosphere on the ground - the success of the home country. Once it goes out, the party ends.

Broadcasters maintain the illusion that it's still going on by focusing on the stadiums. But in the streets, locals lose all interest.

Given expectations, it's arguable no host in World Cup history is in greater danger of an auto-humiliation than Russia is now.

Putin was already getting ahead of that one this week.

Asked for his tournament favourites, he picked four teams. Russia wasn't one of them.

"Sadly, our team has not enjoyed great results lately," Putin told the China Media Group, but is expected to "fight to the finish."

Strongman to proletarian translation: "There's lots of room for wreckers in the gulag."

Russia gets the benefit of an easy first-round draw, but its form suggests collapse is a lot more than possible. Then the question becomes - how bad could this thing get if Russia bombs out in the first week?

The zloradstvo would be running high, along with local tempers, and there will still be the most of a month to go.

Sochi was a localized event.

The Russians "won" a ton of medals. They were still trying then.

And it was often a distinctly unwelcoming experience.

One can only imagine how the current Russia, laden with grievances and suspicion, will react to a few hundred thousand tipsy foreigners overstaying their welcome. "Not well" is a fair guess.

Lurking in the background is FIFA. The leadership has turned over, but not much else has changed.

This will be the sixth World Cup since it was expanded to 32 competitors. Because who wasn't champing for that Panama-Tunisia match? Once they move to 48 teams in 2026, we can all look forward to Vatican City versus the Federated States of Micronesia.

Major advertising partners have backed out, ticket sales aren't great, the politics remain fraught, but FIFA still expects to make out like bandits. Its revenues during the four-year cycle connected to this event are projected to reach US$6-billion.

FIFA has thus far dodged issues of social peril in Russia - racism in the stands, homophobia in the streets, the most totalitarian feel since the Argentina's military junta welcomed the world 40 years ago. That may yet become a problem.

If so, FIFA will return to its usual dodge - "We just do soccer." In the past, it's proved a remarkably resilient excuse.

Organizational doomsaying will occupy the bulk of the coverage until Thursday. But, once a ball is kicked in anger, sport overwhelms all the other concerns.

They will hope for some onthe-field disaster to catch global attention, the way Luis Suarez's dental adventures distracted from the pillage of Brazil four years ago.

In all likelihood, it'll go off smoothly. There is too much money at stake for it to do otherwise.

But it's been a long time since the World Cup had an unqualified win - a great tournament on and off the field, one that made this event seem like a global celebration rather than a picnic for plutocrats. You'd have to go back to France 98 for that sort of success.

Instead, we get Russia.

The competition may still be great, but the venue is already a bust.

Like a holiday dinner with family who don't like each other much, the best that can be hoped for is civility, and that everyone save the revelling for the drive home.

Associated Graphic

Egypt's Mohamed Salah, top left, France's Kylian Mbappé, top right, and Uruguay's Luis Suarez will lead their countries at the World Cup while Vladimir Putin looks on.


Kylian Mbappé of France plays the ball during a friendly match between France and Colombia held in Paris in March. Mbappé is expected to be a breakout star in this World Cup.


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