Vladimir Putin sat in the stand alongside Messrs Blatter and Platini, surveying the colourful scene in the Maracana Stadium. As ever, he was unemotional, guarded and watchful. He may just have been imagining four years on and a tableaux that would reflect Russian superiority: Putin riding bare-chested on horseback into the Luzhniki Stadium with the FIFA World Cup gleaming in his hands.
This is no homo-erotic dream, because as the world now knows, Russia is not the most tolerant place, but it’s all about power, vanity and the re-emergence of the great bear from the east. And a host nation World Cup win would demonstrate, once and for all, the towering strength of the Russians. As Blatter may have said to Putin as they watched Germany triumph: “All this can be yours, Vladimir, my friend.”
Since the statues went tumbling, Russia has struggled on the football field. No longer able to call on the likes of Ukraine and Georgia to enhance their football teams, they have become decidedly second-rate. Russia’s performance at Brazil 2014 was, at best, tepid, casting doubts about their choice of Fabio Capello as coach and the nation’s ability to put on a credible show in 2018.
Russia will certainly struggle to match the carnival spirit of 2014, and even 2006. Football fans travelling to Russia have not had the most comfortable of rides, often exploited and treated with disdain, occasionally with brutality. A massive PR campaign will be needed to invite the hordes to Moscow and the like.
As for its football team, the early odds have placed Russia at 20-1 to win the 2018 competition. I think they are very generous odds – because I believe that Putin and his pals will follow the European Central Bank’s lead and do “whatever it takes” to win the World Cup.
Some people might consider that Russia winning the World Cup is pure fantasy, or the deranged thoughts of a Vodka-addled brain. If they do manage it, they will need to overcome a lot of challenges, not least the country’s own [recent] history.
Russia’s performance in Brazil suggested they are a long way off building a team that could even remotely be considered as potential world champions. You don’t have to scrutinise Capello’s squad for Brazil to see they have immediate problems to address. The former England boss had a squad that played entirely for Russian clubs and it didn’t exactly reflect the promise of youth, with seven players over the age of 30. That suggests a couple of things: that Russian players are not good enough to attract big money from overseas; and that Russian clubs pay so much money that it is easier to stay at home to play football. Both are legitimate concerns.
That’s not to say Russia doesn’t have some promising talent. CSKA Moscow’s Alan Dzagoev, Real Madrid’s Denis Cheryshev and Amir Natkho are all being tipped for 2018 glory, but they will need more than that, given most of the 2014 squad will be too old. Where will they come from?
Surely, with a population of 144 million, Russia should be making a better job of putting a competitive squad together? They have more people than the combined population of Germany and Spain, the last two World Cup winners. But there’s a theory among social commentators that the flowering youth of the 1990s, who will form the Russian squad of 2018, emerged from a society deprived of good food and sound nutrition as Russia came to terms with the post-Soviet world. Furthermore, the once formidable sporting infrastructure, that scooped medals galore in the heyday of the USSR, crumbled during this era. Compare the Russians of today with the players that represented the Soviet Union and as well as being short on technique, they also lack physical presence.
What’s more worrying for overseas fans is how they will be received in Russia. Racism and homophobia are both rife among football crowds in Russia – CSKA Moscow were punished on a number of occasions last season for racist abuse. And clubs like Zenit are very hostile when it comes to black players and equally fond of expressing their disgust about homosexuality.
This kind of backdrop could work in Russia’s favour, or rather, it could be a big distraction for other nations. We’ve seen the way some black players react to racist abuse and it won’t be that surprising if someone like Mario Balotelli walks off the pitch. Who could blame him?
But we are not talking about huge football crowds in Russia. Although there are 144 million people, the average crowd in the Russian Premier League is just 11,500, with some clubs only able to attract 7,000 people. The Moscow clubs, Spartak, CSKA, Lokomotiv and Dynamo, are not the biggest draw at the gate – that honour belongs to Kuban Krasnador, who had an average attendance of 21,000 in 2013-14.
Notwithstanding the challenges facing Russia, you can expect that all energies and financia; resources will be directed towards building a national squad that can compete in 2018, and don’t rule out the odd repatriation here and there. But don’t expect Capello to be leading it. Although he’s on a big contract, Russia will doubtless be hoping that the European Championship qualifiers will demonstrate a squad is being assembled. They face Montenegro, Sweden, Liechtenstein, Moldova and Austria over the coming year and half. If it doesn’t go according to plan, they have enough money to make a change.
But there’s a very significant reason why Russia will be hard to beat in 2018. The fact is, they do not often lose at home, despite their lack lustre overall performance since Glasnost. They’ve lost just seven times overall since 1996 and only twice in competitive games in Moscow, which will undoubtedly be their base camp for the World Cup.
You don’t have to be the best in the world to be World Cup winners, as Italy showed in 2006, but you have to be in possession of the “team for the job”. Between 2016 and 2018, Russia will largely be under the radar. They, like Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition may have a very potent weapon (in addition to the massive advantage in their case of being at home). Surprise!