On May 19, Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich missed the Football Association final at London’s Wembley Stadium, where his team, Chelsea, beat Manchester United. British officials hadn’t renewed Abramovich’s visa—making him pay the price for a deep freeze in relations with the Kremlin after the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in England. Prime Minister Theresa May had already announced that no ministers or diplomats would attend the soccer World Cup starting in Moscow in mid-June, and taking aim at the Russian most famously linked with football was a logical next step.
When Russia won its bid to host the planet’s most watched sporting event eight years ago, Vladimir Putin made clear he intended the tournament to showcase his country at its best. But today he’s getting global attention for meddling in U.S. elections, backing the brutal Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, and waging a not-so covert war in eastern Ukraine. In March, the U.S. and European Union expelled more than 100 diplomats over the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter. Washington the next month slapped new sanctions on Russian oligarchs, some of whom have built or own infrastructure for World Cup matches.
In spite of all that, the Russian president looks set to score a win. The British hard line has failed to catch on, with only Iceland saying its officials will stay away in solidarity. Just as he did with the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, Putin—the longest-serving Russian leader since Joseph Stalin—has used the event as an excuse for infrastructure investment. Russia is spending some $11 billion on the World Cup, not just on stadiums, but also on upgrades to airports and transit across the country. “It’s a great platform for him, and Lord knows he’s paid enough for it,” says Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute, a research group in Washington. “He will appear as presidential and gracious and diplomatic as he can. If what he’s looking for is praise and adulation from world leaders, that’s probably not realistic, and I suspect he knows that.”
The tournament kicks off on June 14 with an opening ceremony and a match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. Staging the show is the general director of the state-controlled Channel One TV station, Konstantin Ernst, who put together Sochi’s opening, which extolled the glory of Mother Russia while glossing over the more sordid bits of its history. Details of the World Cup entertainment program remain scant, but American stars Will Smith and Nicky Jam and Kosovar pop singer Era Istrefi will perform the event’s official anthem, Live It Up, at the final on July 15.
After blaming Russia for poisoning the Skripals with a deadly nerve agent called Novichok, Prime Minister May said that while the English team will participate in the World Cup, the royal family and other officials won’t be there. That will make it the first time in more than a decade that neither Prince William—who serves as president of the Football Association—nor Prince Harry will attend. And Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in March said he thought Putin would bask in the glory of the World Cup like Hitler did at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. “This is a huge philosophical victory for Putin,” says Bill Browder, founder of Hermitage Capital Management, a vocal opponent of Putin who made his fortune investing in Russia in the 1990s. “He knows most British people will care more about their football than the politics of Russia.” A nightclub in the southwestern city of Volgograd, the site of England’s June 18 opener against Tunisia, is betting on that. The Gryadushka bar says it will offer a cocktail called the “Novichok”—with what it calls top-secret ingredients including extracts from birch trees.
More than 60 members of the European Parliament have signed a letter calling on EU leaders to back the U.K. in boycotting the World Cup. “While we agree that sport can help build metaphorical bridges, as long as Putin is blowing up real ones in Syria, we cannot pretend this World Cup is just like any other major sporting event,” the letter says. It hasn’t gotten much traction, and French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have indicated they will attend in the likely event that their teams advance in the tournament.
Putin has focused on ensuring the venues are prepared and has touted the importance of Russia hosting the event for the first time. He appears in a promotional video doing a header in the Kremlin with Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, global soccer’s governing body and the organizer of the tournament. But he’s also courted controversy by personally inviting Sepp Blatter, the former FIFA chief who was banned from soccer for six years after acorruption scandal. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has brushed off any eventual boycott of the event. “The most important thing at the World Cup isn’t functionaries or official representatives,” he told journalists. “It’s the game.”
Hundreds of thousands of fans from around the world are due to descend on 11 Russian cities, from the Baltic Sea port of Kaliningrad to Yekaterinburg, east of the Ural Mountains. Roughly 2.5 million tickets have been sold, more than half of which were snapped up by non-Russians. Although the U.S. failed to qualify for the competition, the Russian government says 30,000 Americans will likely attend, making them the biggest foreign contingent. And Russia has simplified the normally complex and expensive visa process by giving World Cup ticket holders “Fan IDs” that serve as visas.
While the event will expose Russians to people who don’t subscribe to the Kremlin worldview, there’s also a risk of trouble from extremist fans known as “ultras.” Clashes between Russian and English fans in Marseille at the 2016 European Championship left more than 30 injured. And FIFA fined the Russian football federation 30,000 Swiss francs ($30,500) after fans directed monkey chants at black French players during a March game in St. Petersburg. Russian security has banned more than 450 people from World Cup matches because of their history of causing trouble. “The Russian security forces will do whatever they can to prevent incidents,” says Sylvia Schenk, a German lawyer who sits on the FIFA advisory board for human rights. “Russia wants a good image.”