Fifa World Cup final: France rain on Vladimir Putin’s parade as Emmanuel Macron gets last laugh at trophy presentation
Russian president mocked on social media for umbrella own goal during World Cup trophy presentation as French counterpart enjoys sweetest of victories
Vladimir Putin will pose topless for macho photoshoots riding around on a horse, but it seems he can’t handle a bit of a rain.
World Cup final viewers were treated to the sight of the Russian president huddled under a giant umbrella – held up over him by a lackey – during Sunday’s trophy presentation on the pitch, when a deluge poured down on the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
Emmanuel Macron, the president of tournament winners France, didn’t care that he was getting soaked to the bone as he congratulated Didier Deschamps’ men.
The 40-year-old Macron nervously paced around and then wildly celebrated in the VIP area as France overpowered Croatia 4-2 in a manic final to claim their second World Cup, 20 years on from the first.
But perhaps even sweeter than watching Les Bleus triumph through goals from stars Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappe would have been getting one over on Putin.
“MERCI” read Macron’s simple tweet after the triumph, which no doubt tasted even better coming on Russian soil after Putin’s shenanigans during the 2017 French presidential election.
Macron’s liberal pro-Europeanism was so detested by Putin that the former KGB spy decided to repeat the trick that worked so well for Russia in the Brexit referendum and US presidential election of 2016.
The Kremlin hackers did their best to undermine Macron, as they did to Hillary Clinton in the US and the Remain camp in Britain, with Putin favouring far right candidate Marine Le Pen, as he continues to try to sow discord in Europe and the West in order to advance Russia’s foreign policy goals.
But Macron saw it coming, laying traps for Russia’s troll farm in the form of fake emails and documents. When these were then released, Putin’s ploy was exposed and failed miserably, with Macron elected president – France 1-0 Russia.
And Macron got a second goal over his Russian counterpart in Moscow, with the French standing tall at the end of what has been a terrific tournament – for no one more than Russia.
The lowest-ranked team heading into the tournament, Russia were a penalty shoot-out away from reaching the semi-finals, riding a wave of patriotic pride that will have had Putin rubbing his hands with glee.
Off the pitch it was a victory for the Kremlin, too. “Many stereotypes about Russia have simply collapsed,” Putin said, while Fifa president Gianni Infantino called Russia 2018 “the best World Cup ever”.
“We all fell in love with Russia,” Infantino added at a round table with Putin last week. “This is a new image of Russia that we now have.”
He said: “Everyone has discovered a beautiful country, a welcoming country, full of people keen to show to the world what sometimes is said is not what happens here.”
It’s nothing new, nefarious nations using major sports events to give their image a makeover – diplomatics call it “soft power”, and Human Rights Watch calls it “sportswashing”.
But, as one viral tweet on Russian social media put it, “Freedom is over”. The words, accompanied by a picture of an empty fan zone to mark the end of the tournament, concluded: “Welcome to the real Russia”.
Hardline rules about drinking in public and congregating near Red Square were suddenly – but only temporarily – relaxed for a month, as was Russia’s intolerance of gay rights and other forms of political dissidence.
Police detained hundreds of anti-Putin protesters during rallies in May, but smiled, waved and posed for pictures with visiting fans over the last five weeks.
We now know why Putin fought so hard to bring the World Cup to Russia, and why he spent US$13 billion giving many of the 11 host cities their first facelift since the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Worryingly, Fifa have been only too willing to cooperate along the way, even after the corruption scandal that engulfed the governing body in 2015.
Fifa has shown at Russia 2018 it has no moral quibbles with human rights abuses, as long as its bottom line is not affected.
Among the dignitaries up with Macron and Putin in the VIP area were Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who is accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur, as well as Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, another of Europe’s dictators.
Still, at least Putin and Fifa didn’t get things all their own way. Putin will have loathed the iconic image of Mbappe high-fiving a political protester from punk group Pussy Riot, dressed in a police uniform, who invaded the pitch during the final with three others, all while a massive global audience watched.
The biggest winner of all may just have been Macron, who kissed Mbappe and Griezmann on their foreheads at the medal ceremony, as well as the top of the World Cup trophy before it was presented to France captain Hugo Lloris.
He continued having fun when he joined the French team in their changing room, giving a speech and striking the dab pose while larking about on Snapchat with Paul Pogba and Benjamin Mendy.
For Macron, it was the sweetest of victories, in more than just football terms, and he got to do it all in front of Putin and really rub the Russian president's nose in it.