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18 August, 2018  ▪  Ivan Verbytskiy

Triumph of the will 2018

The influence of the World Cup on Russia's image

The football World Cup in Russia is over. It ended symbolically: the rain forced lazy Europeans who had been watching the football through rose-tinted glasses and admiring Putin's fake glitz to see the real Russia for at least one moment. The czar was sheltered under an umbrella, while the other guests of honour – headed by the Presidents of France, Croatia and FIFA – were ignored. In the end, judging by their behaviour, none of the foreign dignitaries even dared to take offence after being on the receiving end of so many sycophantic overtures. The world closed its eyes and believed in "another Russia", despite Syria, Ukraine and the dozens of Ukrainian prisoners illegally held in Russian torture chambers.

 

Although we can generally say that Putin displayed Olympic nobility during his footballing benefit event. This time, he did not rattle his sabre during the tournament, as was the case on 08.08.08, when the Olympics started in Beijing and Russian boots entered Georgia. A peaceful Putin was presented to the general public in their rose-tinted glasses. One who was sung an African ode by the newly minted world champions from France in the dressing room right after the final whistle.

 

Nevertheless, you can talk about "peaceful Putin" to the mothers of Ruslan Bahlyk from Trostianets, Sumy Region, and Ihor Petrov from Rubizhne, Luhansk Region – 20-year-old lads who died alongside 11 other Ukrainian soldiers protecting our country during the "festival of football". The world paid no attention to this. It seems that the most expensive football tournament in history was conceived precisely for the sake of one phrase heard from the mouth of FIFA president Gianni Infantino: "Russia has changed its attitude towards itself. Thousands – hundreds of thousands – of people visited, and they came to beautiful, friendly cities, to people who are ready to show the whole world that the stereotypes about Russia are wrong."

 

He has already called this tournament the best in history. Triumph of the Will 2018 has come to pass. Almost as successfully as the 1936 version in Berlin. The one difference was that no one gave a Nazi salute to the current tyrant. Although the verbal praise perhaps more than replaced gestures "from the heart to the sun".

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Over the 32 days, the holiday atmosphere was only interrupted once – when Croatia footballer Domagoj Vida shouted "Glory to Ukraine" on camera after defeating the Russians in the quarterfinal. Team coach Ognjen Vukojević devoted the victory to our country. Subsequently, the entire wrath of Putin's agitprop machine was turned on the Croats. It got to the point that, under pressure from Russia, FIFA almost stopped Vida from playing in the semi-final against the English. It all ended with a behind-the-scenes arrangement, after which Vukojević was ousted from the team and Vida apologised on a Russian federal TV channel like a failing schoolboy at the blackboard following the semi-final victory.

 

Subsequent events showed that the dismissal of Vukojević was nothing more than a smokescreen. Ognjen won a silver medal as a member of the second-placed team and on returning home, when nearly all of Zagreb came out to welcome their triumphant compatriots, he sat next to Croatian Football Federation president Davor Šuker on the open-top bus. The Croats decided not to poke the bear and peacefully play out the tournament, although there are grounds to say that the vindictive FIFA, which feeds on Gazprom money, took revenge on them. The first two goals scored by the French against Daniel Subašić during the final came in questionable circumstances. At least Myroslav Stupar, the only Ukrainian referee to have officiated during the knockout phases of the World Cup in 1982, claims that the free kick that led to the first goal should not have been awarded and that the penalty converted by Antoine Griezmann was not a foul. Two goals in the final... you have to agree that is a little too much.

 

But if we take a step back and look at the situation through the eyes of ordinary Europeans or Latin Americans who do not take an interest in the situation in Ukraine and Syria and do not want to remember the Malaysian airliner shot down in the summer of 2014, what was displayed on the surface really was attractive. The Russians made sure that the places visited by tourists were spotless, cleaned the streets of homeless people and the facades of buildings that could not be renovated were covered with banners. The apparently uncontrolled Russian ultras that fought bloody battles with the English in Marseilles two years ago were silent all month. Not a peep was heard from them. It was a miracle: the Russian championship was perhaps the first in history during which no clashes between fans were recorded.

 

There were only two incidents that the FSB could not control: the aforementioned scandal involving Vida & Vukojević and the pitch invasion by activists from the Pussy Riot movement dressed in police uniforms during the final. Of course, the offenders were detained and a video clip of the interrogation was "leaked" on the internet. The voice of a harsh "chief" can be heard on it, regretting that it is not 1937 and he cannot punish these terrible criminals in the way that they deserve.

 

As for noticeable negative opinions about the Russian World Cup, the words of Korean TV star Chan Gong Chang are all that can be singled out. "Everyone is sort of angry there," he said on returning from Russia. "The Russians do not like ‘slanty-eyed’ Asians. You say to someone, ‘Excuse me...’ And in response, ‘What do you want?!’. It's like that everywhere. Every day I was stopped by police one or two times: 'Are you a terrorist?' Maybe the car looks suspicious to them. I answer that, of course, I'm not a terrorist, but they say, ‘Okay, open the car. Do you have a gun? Drugs? Give us the money'.”

 

The European media (whether French, English or Spanish) glittered with flattery like "so good that it is hard to fault". These impressions were amplified by the comments of famous football players, who officials of the Putin regime pampered, fed, watered and accommodated like nowhere else in the world. Argentine Diego Maradona, the best footballer in the world in the 1980s, was so blown away by the reception that he showed his middle fingers to TV cameras when his country scored and was later unable to leave the stands without assistance. Of course, it would be a sin for these comrades to complain about Russia. Especially when their thoughts go no further than their basic physical needs.

 

In fact, many African or Latin American fans also owe their great love for Russia to the satisfaction of animal instincts. They were struck by the fact that "Natashas" were all over them before they could even start flirting properly. The Mexicans posted dozens of videos and photos on social media of naked Russian women walking around near the stadium in Rostov wearing only football socks.

 

From a purely footballing point of view, the 2018 World Cup will be remembered for the early failure of many recognised favourites. For example, 2014 world champions Germany did not even manage to get out of the group. Unfortunately, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin all but hailed this event as a diplomatic victory. "I read about the loss of the German national team in the news," he wrote on Twitter. "We will have new world champions. But at least no more German politicians will visit the World Cup in the Russian Federation. I wish the Bundesteam new victories outside the Russian Federation. For some reason, they have no luck there."

 

It is a pity that our country's chief diplomat, like our football officials, did not speak out when it would have been worthwhile. Having used the Vida-Vukojević incident to promote themselves, high-ranking Ukrainian officials did not bother to react to the Russian flags with names of cities occupied by the Russian Federation in Crimea that appeared at stadiums hosting the tournament. Which is a shame, because if would have been easy to point out FIFA's double standards. As we know, the Ukrainian national team played its first qualifier for this World Cup behind closed doors. That was a punishment for the red and black flags seen at the Lviv Arena in autumn 2013. This, as well as nationalist symbolism in the Croatian stands during World Cup 2018, caught the attention of FIFA officials, who close their eyes to the behaviour of a country that neglects all the norms of international law.

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In the end, it was probably the strongest all-round footballing team, France, that won the tournament for the second time after they hosted the World Cup in 1998. Twenty years ago, Didier Deschamps lifted the trophy as captain and he is now the third person in history to win the title as both a player and as a coach.

 

The downpour that began immediately after referee Nestor Pitana blew the final whistle on the final match subsequently swept across Russia. This would not have been such a big deal, but one of the World Cup stadiums in Volgograd could not withstand the force of the elements. The arena was flooded, while an embankment nearby collapsed and was washed into the Volga. Putin's government spent the overwhelming amount of $256.5 million on the construction of that stadium.

 

The rain washed away the remains of the artificial beauty and refinement. Russia regained its usual image and Putin immediately removed his diplomatic mask. After the storm had washed away his "sandcastle", the Kremlin’s dwarf began to threaten Ukraine and Georgia: "For us, this is a direct threat to national security. Moving NATO infrastructure towards our borders will be perceived as a threat and the reaction will be extremely negative."

Translated by Jonathan Reilly

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