My own abiding memory of the 2018 World Cup Final was not the atmosphere before, during or after the game; nor was it was not the array of talents and goals, or the extremely large number of Chinese media who had not been for the matches at Luzhniki previously. It was a moment that turned the heart crossways in me.
As my co-commentator was following the action, to give me a water break, I spotted a uniform. Then another. I stood up and made sure our listeners were aware that something was happening. I looked around for the FIFA security, yet they all were watching the game. I spoke into the microphone: “Jesus, something’s going on. I see police. Something’s going on.” I feared the FIFA legacy was already on the road to ruin.
FIFA legacy polished
Even after the FIFA circus had rumbled on, Russia enjoyed a real surge in interest in football. Stadia were visited in great numbers across the country and up and down leagues. Some clubs, like FC Lokomotiv Moscow, were already set for this and provided the atmosphere and entertainment guaranteed to get punters and their families back again.
Others just gouged fans, knowing that their funding didn’t matter on more than a minimum coming through the turnstiles. We knew that as soon as the temperature dipped below +15 degrees, the attendances would be halved. But the Indian Summer shone a lovely light on the biggest sports event in human history.
Russians felt less isolated and opened up. The fun in seeing foreign visitors here spending money, laughing, dancing and enjoying the country gave such a boost to national self-esteem. Russians have long, long suffered from self-shame.
Sure they sent people and animals into space, but they look west or east and feel, well, different. Yet it was that difference that was celebrated and appreciated. Russian culture is a missmash of European, American and Asian, but for those five weeks they saw that it was fun to be Russian.
Tourism, it finally had a point. Russia is an amazing land of contrasts and finally the world caught a glimpse of what’s been hiding in plain sight. Outside of Red Square and Nevsky Prospect foreigners enjoyed the Volga, Don, Black Sea and Urals.
While still Moscow-centric, Russians saw reasons to be proud of in their regions. Thank FIFA, one might say, and they’d be right.
Fan visas, while it was FIFA really giving it a kick off, was a work pure genius. The processing speed and comfort was excellent and that went for media too. While English media did their level best to scare the bejesus out of potential visitors, and sadly convinced many not to visit, the visa system worked a treat.
The FIFA Legacy committee couldn’t control the plethora of non-sports journalists craving commissions from looking for bad news stories, though for a short spell the desperate hacks were ignored as there was a sports event going on and they’d have time enough to sell their wares when it was over.
FIFA legacy tarnished
And it all came to an end. The immediate aftermath didn’t really garner much attention. The media scrum went home. Some journalists who left with only good things to say were the same who had pledged never to set foot in Russia beforehand, so many of us held out hope that they’d be more intelligent and nuanced in their coverage.
However, they need to earn a crust and if the Editor dictates it’s anti-Russia again, then what can even a good ‘journo’ do. While not strictly tarnishing FIFA Legacy in Russia, it showed the true two faces of media – Happy to be here, hate you from home.
Russian football will probably not show noticeable improvement for some time and while more kids signed up for football schools, the quality of coaching and development is still awful. While some clubs like FC Chertanovo will try to do the right thing and Premier clubs invest in their reserve teams – namely Zenit, Spartak, Lokomotiv, Krasnodar – the chances of a Russian youngster breaking into the ranks of a top European club looks as far away as it did six months ago. The lack of a cohesive plan will tarnish the FIFA Legacy, though there is time for change.
Now we’re back on the US-led rhetoric of hatred towards Russia in regards to doping. While unable and unwilling to protect the lives of US schoolkids from the poison of doping, US Anti-doping’s Travis “Paper” Tygart insists that Russia should be punished. Even UK Anti-doping were seen to distance themselves from Paper’s antics, though the misleading end of year spectacle of Russia “missing” a deadline meant the World Cup carnival was long forgotten. It didn’t matter that the deadline had been agreed by all parties to be moved to suit both and also to cater for the Russian public holiday (which lasted from December 29 – January 9). We were back to the same bad news cycle.
Tourism has returned to the staple of wealthy, light-spending cruise pensioners in St. Petersburg, non-spending Chinese tourists and football fans for UEFA games. And love him or hate him, Vladimir Putin’s generosity has not been without problem.
Quite a number of foreign fans have gone unaccounted for after their sojourn in Russia. I’d a personal experience of one African fan not wishing to return home and asking for help to get to the UK. Although he claimed to have lost his passport, the fan visa had gotten him to his team’s group games in three different cities.
At present the number is in the hundreds as to those who have out-stayed or disappeared. Over half from Africa and of that group most from just one nation. This is a FIFA Legacy few will be brave enough to address.
What lies ahead
I’m on a cheerful buzz right now as despite the mercury registering minus 14 degrees. In the street I am looking at my media accreditation and the match tickets stuffed into the back of it. It was an amazing time to be in Russia.
I only had one day that I copped myself on and enjoyed it with my son. We walked along a calm Nikolskaya, met friends, media and generally appreciated what was going on. What happened in June and July 2018 was just a snapshot of how life could be in Russia.
Russian football will anoint a new Czar next month and we hope that Alexander Dyukov will bring something different to the game here. It will not be easy though he has Gazprom’s backing and political support. The team he is gathering around him for the job could well bring Russian football into a new age of success. It won’t be easy but if there is to be a positive FIFA Legacy, he should be the man to deliver it.
So as we enter the last quarter of January, there is cause for celebration. There was no mass fighting in forests or city squares. English fans didn’t avail of the garden furniture and despite trying their best, South/Central American fans brand of crudeness was stamped down upon by their own authorities.
We can genuinely say it was a great World Cup with worthy winners and some amazing talent on display. The litmus test will be this Spring if fans return to stadia in their droves, once the it’s above +15 degrees of course.