A couple of days ago, the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia was opened by a match between Russia and Saudi Arabia national teams that many anticipated. At the grand opening of this event, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin announced that:
I congratulate the whole big, strong, multi-national football family from all over the world and welcome to the beginning of the planet’s main football tournament.
Even though soccer, or football as they call it in Europe, lies far beyond the boundaries of day-to-day politics, it’s hardly a secret to all those who have been following political events closely that it has been dominating the world of sports for quite some time. It’s no wonder than that the world cup that has just opened attracts so much attention, as Russia and the Western world are engaged in the most intense and bitter geopolitical struggle since the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, what is even more intriguing, Russia appears to be winning.
Long before the grand opening of the 2018 World Cup, the deputies of the European Parliament announced their intention to declare a diplomatic boycott of this massive event. British authorities were first to officially announce the boycott of the FIFA World Cup, with a number of other countries joining them, including Iceland and Australia.
However, on the day Vladimir Putin made his greeting speech, most of the Western media sources had to acknowledge that the whole idea of a boycott was nothing but a big failure.
The 2018 FIFA World Cup is the largest event that Russia hosts since the end of Soviet days, back when the United States and other countries chose to boycott of the Russia Olympics in 1980 because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Reuters notes.
It’s rather symbolic that the new anti-Russian hysteria was launched after the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics that was the largest sports-related PR victory for Vladimir Putin until those very days. The Atlantic Council argues as people from all around the world coming to enjoy Russian hospitality and impressive sportsmanship, there are signs that many in the international community are losing their appetite for confrontation with the Kremlin. In recent days, we have seen US President Donald Trump speak repeatedly of welcoming Russia back into G-8. Elsewhere, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker calls for an end to “Russia-bashing,” Germany ploughs on with its Russian pipeline partnership, and French President Emmanuel Macron strikes billion dollar deals in St. Petersburg.
The Turkish Diken notes that the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia can prove to be highly beneficial to Russia both at the soccer field and beyond it, as it seems to be a perfect tool for Moscow to show how soft power is to be used. At the same time, the Norwegian Aftenposten points out that the FIFA cup may become the best thing that has happened to Russia in a long while, sine it may allow it to break a lot of cliches that Western media sources keep repeating relentlessly about this country. No matter what of the 11 Russian cities that are hosting the event soccer fans are going to visit, local authorities have made sure that they will feel both safe and welcome. And building a total of 12 stadiums that are fully compliant with the rigid FIFA standards in no small feat on its on.
Even the British Guardian that spent a lot of time bashing Russia and urging soccer fans from all across the globe to skip the event had to admit that things turned out to be much nicer that its opinion writers expected. And there’s little wonder, since most of the media sources tend to agree that Moscow put a lot of time and effort in organizing the event.
Even Ronaldo, that seems to be a major celebrity in the soccer world, announced in his Instagram that it was a major honor for him to take part in the opening ceremony of the FIFA World Cup Russia, adding that he felt the exact same emotions at the stadium that were driving him forward throughout his sports career.
According to the Lebanese Al Akhbar, has virtually slapped in the face all those who were trying to discredit the event even before it started.
As for other media sources, the Financial Times argues that the FIFA World Cup showed the limited effect of all the sanctions that were introduced by the West against Russia. And no matter how much it tried to play the so-called Salisbury incident to justify this approach, in less than a month Russia’s leader is going to hand over the grand trophy of the event to the team that would prove its worthiness on the soccer field. So, this media source notes that there’s hardly any way of at looking at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia as a major geopolitical triumph for Moscow.
In turn, the Austrian Der Standard has released an interview with an renowned expert on Eastern Europe, Felix Jaitner in which he argues that most things about Russia that presented in the West as facts have little in common with reality. He also noted that he believes that the comparison that UK Foreign Affair Secretary, Boris Johnson made about the FIFA World Cup in Russia reminding him the 1936 Summer Olympics hosted by the Nazi-regime to be absolutely unacceptable.
The opening match of the event, unfortunately, did not fulfill the hopes of Saudi fans that came to Russia in large numbers to support their national team with green flags and banners. The CBS described the first match of the Russian national team, in which it defeated Saudi Arabia with a score of five to zero to be a fantastic start. After the opening match of the World Cup 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin embraced Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman to show him compassion that is rarely seen in the world of both politics and sports, as the Saudi royal family member had to witness such a crashing defeat in person. The head Saudi soccer federation, Adel Izzat announced that the members of the national team of the kingdom will be subjected to a disciplinary penalty for their bitter failure in the opening game with the Russian team.
The phenomenal result shown in the opening match was recognized by numerous media sources, that would note that nobody expected something that sensational from the Russian national team. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, that plays for the Los Angeles Galaxy has gone as far as to announced that the Russian team will be the winner of the tournament. Furthermore, the highest skyscraper in the world, Burj Khalifa in Dubai was lit in the color of the Russian flag to celebrate this result, as the UAE media sources reported.
For sure, there’s been a number of curious moments in the opening days of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia. For example, a number of media outlets note that a freight train carrying a load of 100,000 frozen crayfish departed from China for Moscow to deliver a treat the FIFA World Cup attendants. Even since the Chinese national team failed to make the cut for the World Cup, there’s been a lot of memes in the Chinese media that portrayed crayfish.
The New York Times confines that the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia will become one of the most profitable sports events of the recent years, securing a profit of 6.1 billion dollars for FIFA. This will constitute a ten percent increase over the expected numbers by making 1.3 billion more than FIFA managed to secure at the previous World Cup in Brazil.
Martin Berger is a freelance journalist and geopolitical analyst, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”