World Cup: Vladimir Putin’s PR offensive is the greatest win of all for Russia – call it the Fifa facelift

Shock victory on penalties against Spain has everyone cheering for the underdog hosts, while the Kremlin uses the World Cup to overhaul Russia’s image

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 July, 2018, 2:19pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 July, 2018, 2:42pm

The Russian team need not even kick another ball at the 2018 World Cup, because for them it is already mission accomplished.

Entering the tournament as the lowest-ranked team, few expected them to even get out of a tough group featuring Uruguay, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Clearly the Kremlin did not think much of Russia’s chances in their last 16 tie against 2010 champions Spain, either.

Russian President Vladimir Putin stayed away from his country’s first World Cup knockout match in the post-Soviet era, instead opting to watch on television as Russia shocked Spain 4-3 on penalties.

“Just like the whole country, Putin watched the game from start to finish and cheered for our [lads],” Russian news agencies quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying.

Vlad the Lad wasn’t the only one cheering on the Russians. As I sat watching the game in a Mexican restaurant in Sai Ying Pun on Sunday night, nearly two thirds of the room were cheering every penalty kick scored by the hosts; howls of delight met every penalty missed by the Spaniards.

When Gerard Pique was penalised for a handball in the box, and Russia tucked away the resultant spot kick to level the match at 1-1 in the first half, the room erupted.

Fifa World Cup: Vladimir Putin congratulates Russia for penalty shoot-out win over Spain

People broke into applause every time a Russian defender made a last-ditch tackle or block to deny the Spanish attackers, who huffed and puffed with their tiki-taka possession but couldn’t blow the house down through 120 minutes including extra time.

There were sporadic cries of “Russia, Russia!” – some ironic, some not – as the underdog stood up to the mighty Spain.

So no wonder Putin was cheering – this is exactly what he wanted when he helped Russia win the hosting rights for the tournament in a controversial Fifa vote in 2010.

And it’s no wonder either that the Russian president invited disgraced former Fifa president Sepp Blatter to Moscow watch some matches last month – Blatter gave Putin the greatest gift of all.

In the seven and a half years following that vote, Russia spent a record US$13 billion upgrading most of the 11 host cities for the first time since the Soviet Union’s collapse.

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“It’s already a great success,” Alexei Sorokin, head of Russia’s World Cup local organising committee, said of the tournament at Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium after the shock win.

“We have had lots of positive reactions from the different teams, fans and delegations. It’s going well. For now, things are good.

“It’s good that our team remains in the competition,” Sorokin said. “There is a lot of interest.”

Forget the jailing of political dissidents, the human rights abuses, the interference in foreign elections, accusations of attempted murder of former nationals on foreign soil, and all the rest of it.

Russia has put on its best face with the eyes of the world watching, giving Putin a once-in-a-lifetime chance to rebuild the country’s battered global reputation and give his own image as a autocratic tyrant a makeover.

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Fifa fined the Russia Football Union 10,000 Swiss francs (US$10,100) after their fans displayed a discriminatory banner in a defeat by Uruguay, but that has been the only notable incident of racism so far.

The Kremlin has clamped down to ensure there is no visible trace of it, nor of the hooliganism that also regularly tarnishes Russian Premier League matches and Uefa Champions League matches involving Russian teams.

The Kremlin then turns around to use this as a propaganda talking point to discredit the governments of countries like the UK who expressed legitimate fears over Russia hosting the tournament.

The Russian government’s crackdown on LGBT activism has also been relaxed for four and a half weeks amid international scrutiny.

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You can be arrested for waving a rainbow flag in Russia, a country which outlaws gay “propaganda” and looks away while gays are tortured in Chechnya; a country where anti-gay violence is rarely punished if ever.

But Russian authorities didn’t even bother prosecuting British gay rights activist Peter Tatchell who protested near the Kremlin before the opening match of the tournament.

Authorities have also allowed rainbow banners to be flown freely at matches.

Will anything change though after the final on July 15, when everyone else has flown home and the cameras have been turned off?

It would be nice to think Russia might see the benefit of embracing tolerance, and try to implement these changes for the long term in society.

For this has been a wonderful World Cup, full of exciting matches, of drama and heartbreak, of stories of fans from different cultures and walks of life coming together to celebrate something we can all enjoy – football.

It’s a month of the most effective PR that Putin could ever have hoped for. When the status quo returns after the final whistle has blown, it won’t even matter – people will think of Russia as fun, vibrant and welcoming, not as a dictatorship which murders journalists for criticising its leader, who holds sham elections to keep himself in power.

Call it the Fifa facelift, coming to Qatar in 2022.