Football: A new chapter beckons for host

Russia wants to move on from past scandals and project a fresh image at World Cup

Fears of hooliganism and racism have plagued Russia in recent years. The country is hoping to leverage on a successful staging of the World Cup to improve its image.
Fears of hooliganism and racism have plagued Russia in recent years. The country is hoping to leverage on a successful staging of the World Cup to improve its image. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The boy carries a football under his arm as he admires the diving Lev Yashin from afar. The image - on new 100 ruble (S$2.14) notes released to commemorate the first World Cup on Eastern European soil - has made the link between Russia's past and the country's present come alive.

The present dictates that the world's largest nation pull out all the stops to ensure that the event's success matches its mammoth reputation, with around 15,000 volunteers activated across the 11 host cities from today till the final on July 15.

Venues like Nizhny Novgorod, formerly known as Gorky and located along the banks of the Volga river, some 400km east of Moscow, were closed to foreigners in the Soviet era.

But now it is organising over 100 cultural events for fans and will see an influx of visitors for the first time when it stages four matches and welcomes the giants of the game like Argentina and England.

Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, has 150 guides who speak foreign languages from Farsi to French, to show tourists the cultural and historical heritage of the city when France and Germany arrive.

It is why, as Russia welcomes 31 teams and approximately a million visitors for the world's largest sporting event - it drew 3.2 billion viewers at its last edition in 2014 - analysts and experts tell The Straits Times that this is not just another football event.

For Russia, which has staged two Olympics - the 1980 Summer Games, which was marked by a boycott by major Western powers and the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, which has since been tarnished by the revelation of a major doping scandal - this could well be an opportunity to come in from the cold.

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Moscow State University sports management analyst Vladimir Ageev told ST: "With Russia's rich experience and successful organisation of the so-called mega projects such as the 2014 Winter Olympics, there is no doubt that everything will be held at the highest level.

"Teams will be satisfied with the organisation of matches and accommodation, fans and tourists will return home with positive impressions, and foreign journalists will leave only positive responses about work at the tournament."

While the host has been planning its own version of From Russia With Love, there is no denying the political, economic, social and sporting tensions that surround the country currently.

Russia is accused of meddling in the 2016 United States presidential election, backing Syria President Bashar al-Assad's regime, and poisoning double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in England.

On the pitch, the spectre of systemic doping still looms for a country that has had a record 41 Olympic medals stripped from its clutches due to such violations.

Even at this tournament, the football team are not expected to make a significant impact on the pitch, being the lowest ranked team in the 32-nation tournament at No. 70.

But this country of 143 million is still set to gain significantly - if it plays its cards right.

James Dorsey, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, felt that a successful staging of the World Cup could help increase Russia's soft power.

He told ST: "If the Russians pull this off well, it will benefit them and you will have a whole host of people, countries and institutions - because of their political alliances - praising Russia to high heaven.

"Their slate is not going to be wiped clean by the World Cup.

"But the Russians will probably do well in that one not unimportant segment of international public opinion."

It could prove profitable too. In the build-up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Russia faced criticism after spending a record US$51 billion (S$68.5 billion) on roads, railways, power plants and operating costs.

This World Cup is expected to cost US$12 billion, behind only Brazil's US$15 billion in 2014.

But a study conducted by the McKinsey consultancy for the local organising committee estimated "the combined impact of the 2018 World Cup on the GDP of Russia will be about US$15 billion, which exceeds the impact of similar championships in Brazil, South Africa, Germany and South Korea, and is second only to the result of Japan".

It also forecast that the tourism boom could potentially increase the economic impact of the World Cup by up to a third over the next five years.

Andrey Tatarinov, the Russian Ambassador to Singapore, is confident the World Cup will help to promote lesser-known cities such as Samara and Saransk, as the Winter Olympics did for Sochi.

By rolling out the welcome mat for visitors, Russia also has the opportunity to erase the stain of hooliganism and racism that have blighted its image over the years.

Violent clashes occurred at Euro 2016 between Russian and England fans in France, leading to the arrest and the deportation of 50 Russians.

The Russian Football Union was also fined 30,000 Swiss francs (S$40,600) after racist abuse was directed at French players during a March friendly in St Petersburg.

But the Russian Interior Ministry is reportedly flexing its muscle at this tournament.

Its blacklist of fans banned from games has about 500 names. All protests and public events in World Cup cities must be authorised by local authorities.

Security has been tightened considerably to ensure the safety of fans.

There are increased checks at airports and train stations, with 11,000 police officers and 60 Federal Security Service mobile drone-jamming units deployed, as well as a long list of restrictions including the sale and consumption of alcohol - the traditional bane of football tournaments worldwide.

A unique sight here is of people sporting lanyards carrying their Fan ID. The document is limited to ticket holders and serves as a visa into Russia so that entrance into the country is managed carefully.

James Walton, sports business group leader of financial consultancy Deloitte Southeast Asia, who will be in Russia to attend some games, said: "For a country that prides itself on its ability to deal with situations, the issue will be striking the right balance between being firm on trouble and being heavy-handed.

"The fact that the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2017 Confederations Cup passed without serious incident definitely enhanced Russia's portrayal in some quarters."

Looking toward the future, Prof Ageev noted: "Hosting the World Cup is only an impulse for further changes. It is critically important to catch a positive wave from organising such a football forum and take advantage of it in the future."

The hope for Russia is that it will not just be the visiting teams and players which emerge from Russia 2018 with an enhanced reputation.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 14, 2018, with the headline Football: A new chapter beckons for host. Subscribe