The wait is finally over. As the hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia kick-off what would be the first-ever Fifa World Cup in eastern Europe on Thursday, Russia will be hoping the football showpiece will finally help to rebrand themselves after a rather troubled run-in over the last four years.
It’s hard to imagine, which of the hosts of such a big spectacle did not have its share of worries — especially in recent times. Remember the apprehension over meeting of deadlines for the stadia in South Africa for 2010, not to speak of its alarming crime rate? The pre-event chaos in Brazil for the 2014 edition — as well as the 2016 Summer Olympics, which saw mounting protests against the then President Dilma Rousseff — is also fresh in memory.
However, Russia feels the need for redemption all the more after the cloud of suspicion that has haunted their sporting landscape in recent times. Ever since Russia outbid the strong contenders in England and the joint proposals of Belgium-Holland and Portugal-Spain to host the event in 2010, allegations of money changing hands for Russia and Qatar bids had dogged Fifa — eventually resulting in the ouster of its strongman Sepp Blatter.
While it was obvious that Vladimir Putin was pulling out all stops to drive the political mileage out of first the Sochi Winter Olympics and now the football extravaganza, the sporting sanctions against Russia brought back the spectre of ‘systematic doping’ of the iron curtain era. The last Summer Games in Rio (2016) as well as the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics earlier this year both saw the sporting superpower being subjected to sanctions — with the so called ‘clean’ Russian athletes allowed to participate under the flag of International Olympic Committee (IOC).
It’s in the backdrop such uncomfortable questions, not to speak of the Russian president’s own political challenges, that the historic country is set to present its best face to the world. If the initial first-hand experience of the international media is anything to go by, then Russia hasn’t put a foot wrong so far — desperate to rebrand the country’s image to the world.
The Sochi Winter Olympics, for which Russia had spent a ballpark figure of $51 billion, involved more of the niche audience with Putin looming large at all competitions. The football World Cup, in comparison, is a different beast, which takes a life of its own in whichever country which hosts it — and the past is often forgotten.
Russia will be, of course, hoping for that — apart from some improvement in the performance of their national football team. The team had performed woefully at the last major championship, Euro 2016, losing both their group matches to end the campaign in a whimper.
There is nothing like a stirring performance from the host nation to stoke the national pride — not to speak of scoring serious brownie points for the leader.