Having traversed the globe with all the sincerity of an MC Hammer verse, here we are. Preparations are all but complete. Delegations are being dispatched at haste. Finally, we fixate on the reality itself, as ever an entry into the chapters of history, as yet untarnished and unlit by forthcoming events. And so, to Russia.
Under another administration to Sepp Blatter’s, in which his distaste for co-hosting probes after the outcry of the 2002 edition was exceeded only by residual disloyalty to the politically meek English, Russia would almost certainly not have won the rights to this World Cup. Yet, when the vote was held in December 2010, this was a FIFA that only six months earlier had paraded Nelson Mandela, symbol of liberty and endless moral struggle, as the façade for a first African-hosted edition. The Swiss was not entirely culpable – his predecessor and mentor João Havelange invested the transformation of the global sport in the 1994 event, to be staged in a state (or States) that had slumped so far from their first engagement with the game – but his illegality and bureaucracy had driven the Brazilian’s ambitions into disrepair. If, with skyrocketing commercial revenues, he had promised greater equality between the continents, Blatter had delivered that; Africa and Asia were just as corrupt and unaccountable in their footballing federations as they were in government now.
Russia was an untameable bestowal, though. Unlike South Korea & Japan, South Africa and, at least at the stage of 2022’s verdict, Qatar, the globe’s largest geographical state, with Europe’s second-longest serving head of state (after post-Soviet Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko) at the helm, was not an implement of Blatter’s lecherous interregional stranglehold. Oh no. This was in Havelange’s vision, a summit that would consecrate the sport in a previously untapped reserve, overflowing with liquid optimism. Rather than, in the famously egotistical Brazilian’s experience, have Ronald Reagan court you at the height of his administration’s Cold War campaign with an invite to the White House, FIFA’s chief in this instance had to ensure support for an alternative to matches in Plymouth, dotted between Rotterdam and Genk or sloshing from Santander to Lisbon, by any means necessary. The cries were almost palpable across Zurich: anything but Milton Keynes!
Vladimir Putin had promised rail, hotels, city centre refurbishments, meticulous preparation and a plethora of newly-constructed stadia, all within European time zones and with his ever-diligent population in full support. The semantics touted all of FIFA’s ideals in a bare-back, horse-riding, salmon-fishing weekend wet dream in the lush Russian forest clearing, cradled to the President’s bosom every canter of the way. Even without systemic corruption, it may have been a done deal; though England had Wembley, a pre-Olympics London Stadium and Old Trafford, Spain/Portugal the Camp Nou and Santiago Bernabéu, and Belgium/Netherlands the Amsterdam Arena and new 80,000+ capacity Nationaal Stadion and Nieuwe Kuip developments in the pipeline, none matched the ideological ambition of an ever-perceptive quasi-dictator.
Cast the clock back again. USA ’94 flourished, with the exuberance and transformation of newly-elected President Clinton’s nation – Diana Ross-shanked penalties included – providing an apt stage for Roberto Baggio’s artistry, post-Communist showmanship from Bulgaria and Romania, Ireland’s locally-favoured resurgence and, ultimately, Brazil’s pensive attrition. The world was united, irrepressible, and cared little for retrospect.
There could scarcely be any further contrast today. If that tournament sought to shed politics and welcome a new, positive, human age, its idealism finds little reminiscence in battle-hardened, ostracised Russia. While the hosts are impenetrably homogenised, others have fractured as a result of the Kremlin’s sadomasochistic expansionism. With Crimea seized as part of their latest expansion pack, Syria all but secured as a lucrative chip in the Middle East and co-operation with the centrepiece of centuries-old competition secured through Donald Trump’s aligning politics, they have never been better positioned to exert their national credentials.
Therefore, to see even the outspoken Gary Lineker trudge apathetically beyond passport control draws dismay. Local Russian officials and citizens have disputed vociferously the claims of Putin dangling his fingers over this competition as a pawn in his far more existential chess game, but by the sheer constitution of FIFA, such proceedings will always encroach on the hosting of the event. Not to the extent that the loose-lipped Boris Johnson may suggest, but this summer will serve as an invaluable public enlightenment as Putin begins his fourth – second consecutive – Presidential term; more so if he remains occupied by ministerial duties during the course of the football. Vlad’s shapeshifting abilities have always served him well, but in prolonging his present service have leaned more on the serene than the imperceptible. While he lays untroubled, even jovial, in the State Duma, it was not always this way. Dissolution-brokering Boris Yeltsin ousted in drunken, corrupt disgrace on New Year’s Eve 1999, up stepped the former KGB man, seemingly a loyalist of his predecessor. His military past served him well, however, and a direct proximity to the major political events concerning the USSR in the decade prior – stationed in the East German capital as the Berlin Wall fell before reconnecting with former University associates Anatoly Sobchak (Mayor of St Petersburg) and future Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov in his rise up the post-Communist political ranks – has asserted an ideological shroud over the economically flourishing state ever since. Pandering to the dissent of citizens who, though defeating Mikhail Gorbachev’s flip-flopping reformist pledge, were in opposition to Yeltsin’s responsible stance on USSR debts and his naïve submission to private business elites, Putin has since allowed them to settle. With economic upturns credited to an enhanced international pedigree and the expansion of the urban middle-class, and provincial idiosyncrasies instilled as social foundations, his vision has not been predated by inflexible decrees, but instead driven the Russian Federation forward by distancing from either monarchist or Marxist heritage. Anti-politics have ruled Russia – when presided over, in exchange with a fellow former Sobchak student, by Dimitry Medvedev preoccupied with the freefalling oil prices and Western banking wounds of 2008-09 – and have since fertilised the White House lawns. Had a laughably marketized #USMNT have been waved off by the abnormally large hands of Washington D.C.’s caricatured king this week, with Twitter co-commentary accompanying their every act, this month may have been truly insufferable.
Leadership that has secured World Cup hosting rights has also obscured patriotic hopes – though conflicting, a tale sympathised with by all of the profiteers of Blatter’s 2006-onwards racketeering. For the world’s largest land mass, the contorted form of Tsarist, dare I even state Stalinist, nationalism perpetuating from the pacified suburbs out has resulted in the hindrance of the national team. Subordinated by the lucrative livings that continue to be made in the Russian top flight, the plaything of mass state apparatus, a nation establishing its modern identity from Communist autocracy has defied the usual stereotype. Above even long-serving glovesman Rinat Dasayev, Igor Akinfeev was thought of as the most promising Russian-born ‘keeper since Lev Yashin; he has not been tempted away from CSKA Moscow. All but two of their 23-man squad hail from Russian Premier League (RPL) clubs – five from CSKA, another five from Zenit St Petersburg. So shallow are the barrel’s contents that now they must call on foreign-born assets Mário Fernandes (Brazil) and Euro 2016 squad member Roman Neustädter (Ukraine, qualifying also for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Germany).
Talent has certainly slipped through the grasp of national authorities – of the squad that attended the 1998 Under-21 European Championships, Vladimir But of Borussia Dortmund, Vitesse’s Dmitri Shoukov, Saint-Étienne’s Erik Korchagin and PSV’s Sergei Temryukov collected only two cumulative senior caps – but the relative fortunes of Andrey Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko and, for a short Andalusian stint, Aleksandr Kerzhakov do hold the Russian Football Union (RFS) accountable. Fundamentally, those who do attract overseas interest are, in more instances than not, victims of a patriotic self-fulfilling prophecy. Only the more extroverted, personable individuals have been seen to adapt to English, Spanish or Italian environs, yet in the image of Eduard Streltsov – already four years into his club career with Torpedo Moscow, arrested on rape charges aged 20 a fortnight before the 1958 World Cup – often silenced at home.
Streltsov had emerged as the sporting pinnacle of a post-Stalin age, and had the swagger to support such claims. With a film star quality to his slicked-back locks, the prodigious youth carried the drinking and womanising habits of the role; precedent-setting female Politburo minister Yekaterina Furtseva’s daughter Svetlana reportedly charmed. Yet as a lurid late-night slur at a celebratory Kremlin event held for the 1956 Olympic Gold Medallists laughed off any suggestions of marriage, and Streltsov instead tied the knot with his longer-term partner Alla Demenko only weeks later, the central Soviet powers were becoming increasingly wary of his cultural influence, especially when potentially breaking ranks on Torpedo’s European tours. The Communist Party, behind the pretence of sporting publications, slandered him, and so in pre-tournament training camps the decision, allegedly, was made. At another evening function, absconding from the deadlines imposed by managers and administrators, with events forever shrouded in mystery, it emerged the next morning that the forward and two team-mates had been taken away by police, with Marina Lebedeva lodging charges against them. Neither Mikhail Ogonkov nor Boris Tatushin represented their nation again, and scarcely recovered their club careers with Spartak after their three-year bans, but Streltsov – five years the duo’s junior – did recuperate his legacy after receiving widespread admiration in what was originally declared a twelve-year prison sentence. Certainly aided by the waning approval of Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who some position as the instigator, he was released in 1963. Though he returned to alight the national team – seven goals in 17 appearances – after their victory in the 1960 European Championship, the result of his initial interment had, for some, as profound a national impact as the slump of England in the Munich Air Disaster’s aftermath; both nations would carry designs on their first Jules Rimet trophy, had it not been for such external afflictions.
Routinely, non-Russians were also identified as inferior to the qualities of Moskva’s CSKA, Spartak, Torpedo and Dynamo. Various managerial, administrative and political ideologies had prevented this inclusion throughout Stalin and Khrushchev’s tenures, but more alarming during the economic stall inflicted by Leonid Brezhnev was the ignorance of the Caucasus or Central Asia, when between 1973 and ’83 only a sole Moscow side won the Soviet Cup (Dynamo, ’77), with Ukraine, the Armenian SSR’s Ararat Yerevan and Georgia’s Dinamo Tbilisi swarming. Forced to play second fiddle if called up at all, the fortunes of Uzbek, Kazakh, Kirghiz, Turkmen and Tajik talents was as morbid as their economic deprivation. Ukraine, and to some extent Belarus, did gain recognition as culturally proximate to Moscow and Leningrad, but the exploits of Oleg Blokhin were of embarrassment, generally, to fierce ethnic Russians. As were those of Tbilisi’s David Kipiani in the otherwise barren 1970s and Ukrainian Volodymyr Bezsonov, who from full-back powered the nation to the 1977 FIFA World Youth Championship as top goalscorer. Russia had exhausted itself, and in a botched 1978 World Cup qualifying attempt, none of their five goalscorers hailed from the mother republic; Kipiani scored twice as playmaker, while the Dynamo Kyiv pairing of Anatoliy Konkov and Leonid Buryak (Blokhin’s strike partner) delivered returns against Greece and Hungary, respectively, but it was insufficient.
Elsewhere, these players had reinvented the Union. A year earlier than the World Youth Championship, they had returned victorious from Hungary with the European Under-18 title, while in 1975 Kyiv had won both the European Cup Winner’s Cup and Super Cup; the first ever Soviet side to do so in either competition, and only in the latter, and formed the basis for a bronze medal-winning performance at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, beating Brazil to ensure a Communist 1-2-3 behind East Germany and Poland – in fact their second in a trilogy of successive bronzes. Odessa, Lviv, Dnipro, Kharkhiv and Donetsk possessed an unerring sense of national pride and produced the talent to match; Russia would never recover from this ignominy. After his continental victories with Kyiv, in 1975 Valeriy Lobanovskyi became the first manager of the USSR to have both been born outside of Russia and to never have managed or played there, soon followed by club successor Oleh Bazylevych and the final helmsman Anatoliy Byshovets, another Kyiv native who won 1988 Olympic Gold and watched the ruins of Lobanovskyi’s weakened 1990 World Cup side fully fracture and fledge.
Fraternity is obviously paramount to Russian culture, whether socialist or not. As a Ukrainian USSR needed a Ukrainian boss, Moscow’s demands do not fall far from the tree today. Fabio Capello followed Dick Advocaat and Guus Hiddink in the role from his resignation from the England post, evidently seeking more politically agreeable employers. The Italian may have brought a repressed, rant-prone character akin to his players, but his obdurate ways again reared; an over-reliance on physicality, an inability to trust youth and a refusal to let form precede favour in cases such as Roman Shishkin and Artyom Dzyuba’s each resulting in yet another trip down the rungs of a personal legacy. In a low scoring World Cup group, a lack of character failed to spark any escape. Advocaat, a perennial cultural chameleon, had initially inspired the side in 2012, but the 4-1 thrashing of a ragged Czech Republic quickly fizzled out to result in Czechia’s victory in the group, Russia’s early exit and a peculiar void, especially for Alan Dzagoev, finishing in the company of Torres, Balotelli, Gomez and Ronaldo as top goalscorer. Hiddink, similarly well-travelled, had validated and perhaps crowned his accreditation by taking a third nation to its utmost glory; a Euro 2008 semi-final, after inflicting defeat on those who had dismantled France and Italy, the Netherlands.
Experimental by tactics and selections, Hiddink led some to recall Lobanovskyi’s interpretation of the Total Football trends of the 1970s or the relentless tooth-and-nail stereotypes of Soviet ice hockey sides. It was the best an independent Russia had ever been – a side bolstered in confidence by CSKA and Zenit’s UEFA Cup titles in 2005 and 2008, each retaining a heavy Communist influence with 14 of their 18-man squads hailing from post-dissolution states – and still remains as such. The latter continental triumph, under Advocaat, removed any doubts over the credibility of the first; Villarreal, Marseille, Leverkusen and Bayern all defeated en route. Arshavin was the campaign’s star and following the end of the Russian Premier League season in November was finally set to leave his lifelong Saint Petersburg abode. Arsenal swarmed, as did Tottenham on Pavlyuchenko, Chelsea on Yuri Zhirkov, Everton on Diniyar Bilyaletdinov and Stuttgart on Pavel Pogrebnyak, at no short cost – or profit for Moscow and St Petersburg’s governmentally ratified ownership. Prime Minister Putin publicly praised the state of affairs; he could be thankful to Advocaat and Hiddink for easing the economic burden on the Federation and restoring a football-obsessed population’s confidence.
What became of these players was not of great importance. Of course, it was agreeable to see Arshavin’s joyous introduction – four famous goals in the 4-4 draw with Liverpool the early pinnacle – but politically, their work was done. All evidence now exposes this flurry as short-lived and inflexible, condemning Russian football to a cycle of international distrust and internal stagnation. The next provocation was of Gazprom, RFS Financial Committee head Yevgeny Giner and Leonid Fedun (both oil magnates) of Zenit, CSKA and Spartak to induce a reprise via foreign signings, before Suleyman Karimov, a billionaire of investment-derived fortunes, bought out Anzhi Makhachkala; Hulk, Samuel Eto’o, Axel Witsel, Seydou Doumbia, and for some demented reason Aiden McGeady, arriving on extortionate wages and to bemused acclaim. The approach was simplistic, as featured earlier in England and later in China, and failed – Financial Fair Play a relinquishing aspect, and the invasion of Crimea another – and the RPL has since served as a competitive void on UEFA’s eastern flank. For all of Zenit’s Deloitte-recognised fortunes and Moscow’s stability, the only foreign influence that remains is the perpetual Brazilian diaspora and the ex-satellite states, and the greatest national presence in the Champions League is in the pre-match Gazprom ads. And still, the number of Russians in the Russian Football Union’s annual 33 top players list was lower in 2015-16 than 2012-13 or ’11-12. Knockout stage ideals for Сборная (National Team) were secondary to the opportunity of hosting the tournament, and scarce intervention took place after Makhachkala’s demise and the player exodus to avoid the nation’s lowest ebb.
So, what of their chances this summer? Former Spartak and Dynamo boss Stanislav Cherchesov made the bold move of upping sticks to Poland, and after winning the 2015-16 Ekstraklasa title and Polish Cup for Legia Warsaw was rewarded with the national management. Predecessor Leonid Slutsky, the only viable and – despite a wearied appearance – young candidate for the role after two titles with CSKA during Capello’s tenure, has since followed in the same ilk; fleeing to Hull, curiously for some, and without success. Cherchesov, a Spartak and Lokomotiv goalkeeper in his playing days, represented each the USSR, Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Russia, but had never particularly settled in any setting; the only club he ever spent more than four years at, Tirol Innsbruck, dissolved in 2002, forcing him to leave before a final (and fourth) Spartak spell and retirement. Though not a stable candidate, he understands better than most the priorities of the Russian state – as RFS President Vitaly Mutko upheld, government face and the promise of a semi-final result. His players, the victims of this façade, differ in intentions. Most do not seek notoriety; most are understated Moscow dwellers; most are reasonably uneasy with the burden of hosting. Paradoxically, if they do achieve, it will be in spite of governmental rhetoric.
Their curtain-raiser against Saudi Arabia will not be the adversarial clash of the Iberians in neighbouring Group B or, more pertinently given the hostile milieu, the undertones of Kosovo’s autonomous pining between Group E’s Switzerland and Serbia, nor the platonic relationships that will arise and surprise this summer. For FIFA to unfold their flagship event under the wing of two traditionally autocratic regimes, an issue only aggravated by the domestic-first selection policy and relatively uninspiring tactical plans laid out by each, a discerning international rhetoric only sharpens. Some conspiracists see the Russian path, starting with the only nation comparable to them in ranking, as deliberately posed in order to progress – Uruguay laid last, when assumed as distant group favourites to have procured six points, and resting regalia – when suggesting recoils from Michel Platini’s recent admittance of “a little trickery” in 1998, but this is far-fetched at best. Let alone facing demolition via either Spain or Portugal in the Second Round, after the FBI-led inquisition of 2015, Gianni Infantino’s early reign has compared to none as FIFA Chairman before him, and while cameras pan to the heights of the glorious Luzhniki Stadium for the event, grasped by a Putin handshake and offered popcorn from the President’s own purchase as Fyodor Smolov plants a six-yard header home for the first goal of the tournament, he must prove entirely transparent. An entire sport, the most popular in the world, rests heavy on his shoulders as he strides from stadium to stadium, a bald head bobbing underneath the burly shoulders of native security guards, hoping to evade the unrelenting journalistic probes. He is a man oppressed, and though the mask will slip at least once, he need only avoid elementary disaster – fortunate that, even when held on the exact eve of kick-off, the vote for the 2026 World Cup hosts, though again avoiding Western Europe, does not involve on either side an absolutely tyrannical or morally debilitating nation, by most interpretations – before making inroads in the unfortunate Qatari and Moroccan/North American habitats of the near future.
Unperturbed, we return to the present. Four weeks of footballing feasts await us, and like any great show it begins and ends with the symbolic swish of stately decadence. This rightfully follows a lineage of appalling dishonour, discourtesy and downright depravity, yet awash with financiers, omnipotent and globally-hijacked media scrutiny and ideological opposition like never before, it pins weary expectations on its showmen to diffuse the situation. Tactically, the tournament could stifle such openings; the number of those who aim to play on the counter, with reliance on width, overwhelms the ocular debate, while the common favourites approach with ponderous policies prised open by an array of unfortunate injuries. Initial uncertainty from the stands could define the tale of the entire competition, and the slick, militarised efficiency of camerawork, stadium construction – well in schedule and glistening in the low summer sun – could render the presentation clinical, rather than impressing Brazilian hospitality. By some strange fortune, V.A.R. could in fact enliven the whirring machinations of former ‘closed city’ Nizhny Novgorod, notoriously austere Rostov-on-Don and military pilgrimage Volgograd to an era-affirming stature. All signs point east, and our first appetiser arrives in Moscow, in just four days’ time. Many will hope this not to be a connotation of the entire event, but come as it may, this will be 2018. This will be the Russian World Cup.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!