Russia: From 2018 World Cup host to global pariah

By November 26, 2022News, World News

On the side of a building, a mile and a half from the Kremlin a giant, multi-coloured mural marks a Russian sporting achievement.
At full-stretch, goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev is shown saving a penalty against Spain in the 2018 World Cup. Victory in that match sent host nation Russia through to the quarter-finals, sparking jubilation across the country.
Four years on, it's a very different picture.
Russia has gone from a World Cup host and quarter-finalist to international pariah.
Following the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine, football's governing bodies Fifa and Uefa suspended Russian clubs – and the national team – from all competitions. Other international sporting federations have also shown Russia the red card.
Isolation from world sport is one of the many consequences of Russia's war in Ukraine.
The Russians may not be competing in Qatar. But back home they're watching.
"There's big interest here in the World Cup," says Moscow journalist Sergei Buntman. "A lot of people are watching it on TV. Some of them watch because they love football. Others watch to take their minds off the terrible situation with Ukraine."
Match TV, the channel broadcasting the World Cup in Russia, is confident the tournament will deliver it a large audience.
"It's a ratings success. The viewing figures have exceeded all expectations," Match TV commentator Georgiy Cherdantsev tells me.
"Traditionally, Russian fans like watching England, Germany and Spain – countries whose national championships they follow.
"If Italy had qualified, many Russians would have supported them. Messi and Ronaldo are special cases: like everywhere else in the world, they have their own personal supporters here. Serbia's popular, too, amongst our so-called 'active football fans' with close ties to Serb fans," Mr Cherdantsev says.
I often think back to 2018, when this country hosted the World Cup.
For one glorious month, Russia showed what it can be: welcoming, open, friendly, inclusive.
It felt as if a pause button had been pressed and all tensions with the West – over, for example, the Salisbury poisonings – had suddenly disappeared. Foreign football fans partied in the streets. Even the policemen appeared to be in a good mood.
In the run-up to that tournament I remember attending a special training course for Russian railway staff. They were being taught how to smile at foreigners. Russia cared about its image. Or, at least, it seemed to.
Today, there's little sign of welcoming, friendly or inclusive. In June, four months after Russia invaded Ukraine, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told me: "Russia is not squeaky clean. Russia is what it is. And we are not ashamed of showing who we are."
In other words, we don't care what you think of us. It's a fitting slogan for today's Russia. No more smiling classes then.
Where did things go so wrong?
"You need to ask Putin that," says Mr Buntman, "but Russia was already on the way to where we are now.
"We were already heading towards isolation, aggression and xenophobia. We'd had a war with Georgia, then Crimea happened and fighting in the Donbas. Russia had already begun shutting itself off politically," he adds.
And what of Moscow's Luzhniki stadium?
At World Cup 2018, it was the venue for the opening match and the final.
This year, in the same stadium, President Vladimir Putin held a giant political rally in support of his military offensive in Ukraine.
From sporting venue to "special military operation". How priorities have changed.
Outside the stadium, most of the people I chat to tell me they are following World Cup 2022.
"But I wish Russia was playing," Eduard tells me. "If we can't take part in international competitions, we can't improve the quality of our sport."
"I understand we're not there because of the war. But I think you should keep politics out of sport," Viktor says. "It's wrong that Russia are not at the World Cup."
One final thought.
Might one month of World Cup broadcasts help change the Russian public's perception of countries that state propaganda here has been working hard to demonise?
Hardly a day goes by without Russian state media accusing Britain, the US and the EU of everything from "anti-Russian sentiment" to plotting Russia's downfall.
But what if Russians are cheering on Harry Kane and England? Does that change anything?
"Many people here have a kind of schizophrenia or split personality," explains Mr Buntman.
"Someone can spend 90 minutes praising Harry Kane and wanting him to score more goals for England. Then, the next day, the same person can watch the main propagandists on Russian TV and then complain about evil British policies."
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