Putin puts his best foot forward for World Cup

Putin puts his best foot forward for World Cup

Russian leader conceived of the football event as his coming-out as a respected member of the global community

By Simon Kuper

Published: Sun 10 Jun 2018, 9:00 PM

Last updated: Sun 10 Jun 2018, 11:32 PM

In 1992 I spent a month having the traditional foreign journalist's experience of confusion while getting lost around Moscow. The city's size, greyness and filth were reminiscent of South London circa 1976, but otherwise the place felt alien. Then, one Sunday, some Russians took a few of us Brits to the Spartak Moscow vs CSKA derby in the giant Luzhniki Stadium, with the statue of Lenin in front.
It was a gorgeous sunny day in August (already autumn in Moscow), and I realised that this was the perfect Russian tourist event: it was an authentic Russian occasion, because the game wasn't being staged for our benefit, and, in fact, nobody even cared that we were there; there were real local passions on display; good football; and all that for about three pence. On June 14, on the same spot, Russia and Saudi Arabia will kick off the World Cup 2018 - albeit in a stadium expensively rebuilt from scratch for the tournament after the old Luzhniki was razed.
Football still renders Russia a little less incomprehensible. The game - past and present - offers a surprising window onto the country. For most of the last century, the game had a significance for Russian fans that it lacked in happier, freer countries.
British merchants introduced the game in Tsarist St Petersburg. Later, two northern English textile manufacturers, Clement and Harry Charnock, brought football to Moscow. In 1893 they set up the Orekhovo Sport Club for their local factory workers. After the 1917 Revolution, Felix Dzherzinsky, head of Lenin's secret police, rechristened the club Dynamo Moscow, which it remains to this day.
In the early 1900s, Russia's male urban masses began falling for the game. Andrei Starostin - one of four brothers who make up Russian football's most storied family - reminisced much later about taking a tram as a ten-year-old across a pre-Revolutionary Moscow, his ten-kopeck piece to pay for his match ticket safely hidden in his mouth, until he swallowed it. Soon afterwards, Andrei's elder brother Nikolai and some friends founded the club that under the name Spartak would become the most beloved in Russia.
During Stalin's forced industrialisation in the 1930s, peasants flocked to the growing cities. About the only thing that gave them a sense of belonging there was supporting a football club. In the terrible years of Stalin's purges the stadium was a haven. It was about the only place in where you could shout and feel almost whatever you liked.
Throughout the decades, football remained a source of frustration for the state's rulers. They had worked out how to win in Olympic sports: toddlers with the ideal body shape for a particular sport would be picked out, trained up for years, and stuffed with doping. But the method didn't work well with football. Stalin even dissolved the national team after its failure in the 1952 Olympics. In his words: "If you are not ready, you do not need to participate."
The Sbornaya, as the national team is known, won the inaugural European Championship in 1960 in which few countries bothered to participate. But after that, the team consistently underperformed. It suffered from the USSR's harsh climate, the state's international isolation, the lack of any football tradition in many regions, but also from the dictatorial nature of Soviet workplaces. The coach was the boss and players had to obey unthinkingly.
Only in the late 1980s did the Sbornaya experience a brief flowering. The brilliant Ukrainian coach Valeri Lobanovski built a great team at Dynamo Kiev, modelled on the Western free-thinking Dutch. The USSR reached the European Championship final in 1988, and won Olympic gold that summer.
With communism gone, the stadium ceased to be a rare zone of freedom, and newly impoverished Russians stopped going. Many of those who stayed loyal to football were hooligans - an aspirational identity for many Russian boys. The riots in Moscow after Russia lost to Japan at the World Cup 2002 were versions of the race riots common after Spartak matches.
From 2000, the Russian economy boomed as the oil price rose. Russia's relations with the West warmed. Even the Sbornaya peaked in summer 2008. They reached the semi-finals of the European Championship, and their freewheeling play under Dutch coach Guus Hiddink prompted Moscow's largest spontaneous street parties since 1945. In the euphoria, Putin decided to bid to host the World Cup 2018. Like most Russians, he isn't a football fan; he prefers judo and ice hockey. However, he probably conceived of the World Cup as his coming-out as a respected member of the international community - his version of China's 2008 Beijing Olympics. He probably even thought the Sbornaya could win playing at home. He personally met several members of Fifa's executive committee, and on December 2, 2010, in Zurich, Russia was chosen as host.
In the decade since Putin's decision to bid, the international climate has transformed. Now he is the West's pariah, after his invasion of the Ukraine in 2014 and subsequent meddling in various Western elections. Very few Western dignitaries will come to the tournament. But Putin will have to put up with thousands of mostly critical foreign journalists poking around the country for a month.
He may also fail to impress the constituency that he cares most about: Russians. Many of them have noticed that the World Cup has already enriched his cronies. Most spectacularly, his hometown St Petersburg now boasts the most expensive stadium ever constructed, delivered years late at a cost of $1 billion, despite being partly built by North Korean labour. Russian social media are full of grumbles about overpriced stadiums.
Football's traditional function in Russia is to provide a little innocent happiness. No doubt the World Cup will achieve that, especially for Russia's upmarket urban young, who tend to prefer foreign stars to the national game. Putin will have a month to parade in front of a bitter West. But the traditional outcome of football in Russia is defeat.
-Open magazine
Simon Kuper is one of the world's foremost writers on football

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