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World Cup beauty and outrage takes on the dizzying oddity of Russia | Barney Ronay


The greatest show on earth will again show it has the power to enthral, kicking aside Fifas tarnished reputation and the murkiness of Vladimir Putins regime

Welcome, once again, to the world. Eight years, $19bn and two terms in the glorious 100-year rule of Vladimir Putin in the making, the 2018 World Cup in Russia is upon us. This has been a fittingly Soviet-scale construction project, taking in eight new superstadiums, thousands of miles of new roads and 53,000 civilian volunteers trained in the arts of pointing, waving and toughest and most Russian of all smiling at strangers.

As ever the greatest show on earth carries its own irresistible heat before the tournament opener on Thursday afternoon. The World Cup may be compromised by greed and murkiness. Fifa may have become a kind of floating corporate city state, orbiting the globe, planting its great clanking tentacles down among the ripest pastures. But as preparations thrummed up through the gears in Moscow on Wednesday there was a familiar sense of clarity, of that background hum beginning to die away.

It is one of footballs mysteries that no matter what its governing bodies throw at this great belching, burping circus, the spectacle at its heart somehow remains pure and impossibly more-ish. There will be the usual moments of beauty and outrage over the next 35 days and 64 matches. On Saturday afternoon Lionel Messi, the greatest footballer of the modern age, will take on an Iceland team managed by a part-time dentist.

On Monday the odd-job street footballers of Panama will kick off their first ever World Cup, by the Black Sea. In Rostov the aristocrats of Brazil seek revenge for the humiliation of 2014 and for now the opening exchanges of any World Cup remain a four-yearly Christmas Day, an occasion that resonates with a deeply personal excitement.

At which point, the world beyond must also come rushing in. Should Fifas simperingly insincere football family be here at all? When Russias players walk out to face Saudi Arabia on Thursday they will do so as emissaries of the worlds largest land mass, a nation with a long-standing football culture and with the will to put on a grand show.

But still the question of Russia itself remains. There will be no shortage of pop-up Moscow expertise over the next few days, plenty of just-add-water holding forth on the exact scope and meaning of Putins sui generis superstate.

This is not a criticism of attempts to put this spectacle in context, something everyone from Boris Johnson to Frankie Boyle (from whom this article has already stolen at least one Putin joke) has had a go at.

Moscow commuters ride a World Cup themed metro train decorated with a picture of the Soviet era goalkeeper Lev Yashin. Photograph: Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images

What really stands out is the impossibility of the task, the basic dizzying oddity of Russia and a political system the writer Peter Pomerantsev has described as a post-modern dictatorship.

A while back Gary Lineker offered a little handy moral relativism, floating the oft-repeated and deeply Russian notion that as there is corruption and murkiness in every country it is hypocritical to censure Russia for doing something similar.

While this is true in one sense, it also eliminates at a stroke the question of degree, obscuring in Russias case the lack of political opposition liberal Russians sometimes refer to the system as a shitocracy or the fact Amnesty International has voiced concerns about violence against dissenting voices.

Naturally the president was a visible presence in Moscow on the eve of the big kick-off, appearing suddenly on stage at the Fifa congress that would later award the United States, Mexico and Canada the 2026 tournament.

As Putin took the microphone the World Cup trophy sat gleaming on its plinth a few yards away, a mirror image of smooth golden otherworldly alpha power. Relaxed as ever, with that strange capacity to fill any room with his presence, Russias leader spoke approvingly of Gianni Infantino and without a false note right up until the moment he described Fifas president as our front man. Translation issues, no doubt.

The view from Moscow is at least a little clearer. The grand beige-hued centre of town has been sandblasted by a two-year facelift project, leaving a spotless face to greet the World Cups half a million visitors. On Wednesday night travelling fans could already be seen singing in the central squares as Moscow submitted to World Cup fever like a sombre great-uncle dancing at a wedding.

What happens next if we can, finally, speak of the football is equally fascinating. Among the favourites to win the World Cup, Brazil and Germany look strong and settled, and Spain strong and unsettled after the outlandish decision to sack their manager Julen Lopetegui on Wednesday morning, punishment for his acceptance of the Real Madrid job after the tournament.

France have the greatest depth of talent. Argentina look brittle in defence and dreamily strong in attack, with Messi always capable of simply lifting the tournament by the scruff of the neck and walking away with it.

Neutrals will perhaps hope for some new faces in the late stages. Nigeria, Senegal and Egypt carry Africas middling hopes of a first semi-finalist. Serbia may spring a shock, while Belgium, most peoples hotly tipped over-underdogs, have a look of England 2006 about them, with dollops of elite talent, a slightly jarring strain of optimism and a manager with a nice suit.

Colombia fans make a colourful addition to Red Square. Photograph: Rungroj Yongrit/EPA

Ah yes. England. For once footballs most quietly tortured nation will enter a World Cup with the burden of expectation close to zero. This has brought its own unexpected positivity. With an admirable manager in Gareth Southgate and some fit, likeable young players there has even been a cautious bubbling of optimism around the squad as they set about their drills in sleepy Repino.

In the past England have relied on individuals, on the notion a single burst of running power from some celebrity A-lister may be enough to roar the world into submission. This time they have a grooved system and a team of willing workers. A lack of outstanding players will do for them at some stage. But Southgate deserves credit for the way the tone has been set, for his backing of Raheem Sterling in the face of nonsensical assaults on his character and for the fraternal support offered to Danny Rose over his struggles with depression.

And so on with the show. It is an odd side note to Russia 2018 that Putin wanted this World Cup for reasons that now seem a little distant. Ten years ago Russia was keen to engage with the world on positive terms, to signify its coming out as a global player. The temperature has dropped since, to the extent it is debatable Russia would bother bidding now.

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The greatest hope is the next five weeks, as Fifa flags decked with platitudes about friendship and family and anti-racism are unfurled around the Luzhniki Stadium, is that football may still provide something unexpected, a connection in some enduringly distant corners.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us


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