Vladimir Putin exulted in Zurich during a news conference organized hours after officials from FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, had announced his country had won the bid to host the World Cup in 2018. It was December 2010.
Though the highly anticipated vote had been trailed by accusations of corruption, the high-profile arrests of the organization’s officials in predawn raids which cast a harsh light on the unsavory side of international soccer was still five years in the future.
And Putin that day was in a celebratory mood as he took questions from international reporters, sharing stories about his childhood and talking about his hopes for what the major tournament would mean for Russia in the eyes of the world.
“First of all, we need to show that Russia is an open country, that it is open to the whole world,” he said. “People will understand what Russia is when they come here. There are still a lot of stereotypes left over from the past. But the more contacts we establish, the faster these stereotypes will dissipate.”
The World Cup kicked off Thursday with a resounding 5-0 victory by Russia’s team over Saudi Arabia, as Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman watched together in the stadium. The tournament has brought hundreds of thousands of soccer fans to the country and an unrivaled level of international media attention. But seven and a half years later, what does it signify for Russia’s relationships with the Western world?
If anything, the country has found itself more isolated than it has been in decades after a series of actions and allegations have shaken up international politics in recent years. These include the annexation of Crimea, suspected interference in the U.S. and European elections, the poisoning of a former spy in England for which Russia has been accused, and military intervention in Syria. And questions remain about the extent that corruption played in its successful World Cup bid, though they are unlikely to ever yield clear answers: the computers used by Russia’s bid campaign were destroyed before investigators could examine them.
Still global political observers note that the World Cup still represents a triumph for Putin on the world’s stage.
“Putin needed the World Cup mainly for domestic purposes, and I think it will serve him well in that sense,” Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told the Associated Press. “The World Cup takes his approval rating up, because most people like watching football. Albeit a short-lived one, it will nonetheless be a distraction from the post-Soviet reality.”
Though the country has been hemmed in by Western sanctions — which reportedly added some complications to the financing of its stadium construction — the magnetic pull of the World Cup has provided an opportunity for the country to demonstrate, accurately or not, that the sanctions have not had their intended effect.
“For Putin, hosting the World Cup speaks to the failure of sanctions and the failure of Western efforts to isolate him,” professor Sergei Medvedev of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics told Reuters. “Despite all that, [his mind-set is] we still have Crimea, we are pursuing our agenda, and yet look everyone has come to the World Cup.”
Perhaps there were hints of the struggles that now dominate geopolitical discussions about Russia during that 2010 news conference. Putin denounced the allegations of corruption around FIFA’s bidding process that were starting to show up in the media, appearing to deny that he had even heard of them at first — “[I haven’t heard] any accusations against Russia or even hints, for that matter,” he said — before later denouncing them.
“Digging up incriminating material and making corruption allegations is quite an unsavory thing to do, you know,” he said, according to Russia’s transcript of the event. “All the more so since all the allegations made here were groundless, to the best of my knowledge, and they had been recognized as such previously. As a result, this can only be qualified as an attempt to pressure FIFA officials. That’s unacceptable, I think. As simple as that. And then, later on, it was all leaked to the world media. What would you call that kind of thing? I’d describe that as dishonest competition.”
Some reporters had lobbed obsequious questions in his direction, including one who asked about why he had not come to Zurich, where FIFA is headquartered, to lobby it like the leaders of the six other countries with bids had.
“You are the one prime minister that stayed away,” the reporter said. “So would it be fair to say that you are the cleverest prime minister in the world by staying away and winning the contest from so many thousands of miles away?”
“I’m glad I insisted on giving you the floor,” Putin replied. “Thank you, it’s very nice to hear this.”
As the World Cup drew closer this year, Russian officials have gone on the offensive.
“The stronger the anti-Russian campaign ahead of the World Cup is, the more people will be genuinely amazed when they see there is no barbed wire at the stadiums,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said last month.
“If this is isolation, then we are enjoying it,” a senior Russian government official told Reuters.
On Thursday, government spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that criticisms of the country’s politics “have no relation to the World Cup.”
“Today the soccer dimension is the most important one,” he said, according to the AP.
But politics continue to lurk in the backdrop of the tournament, always threatening to enter the fore. Putin’s time with Prince Mohammed bin Salman drew more scrutiny to the global oil production agreement which both countries are leading, amid rising global prices. The Kremlin’s guest list is made up of “a large helping of central Asian autocrats and the heads of the breakaway republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia, along with a smattering of foreign leaders from Africa and South America,” the Guardian noted. British leadership has retaliated for the spy poisoning episode, which Russia has strenuously denied any involvement in, by preventing its ministers from attending the World Cup.
British LGBT activist Peter Tatchell was briefly detained in Moscow on Thursday after he had held a banner critical of Putin outside of the Kremlin: “Putin fails to act against Chechnya torture of gay people,” it read.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, whose treatment of gays drew attention after allegations emerged in Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta about a brutal anti-gay campaign led by police, has caused a row too after the Egyptian soccer star Mo Salah posed for pictures with him.
And racism, a persistent scourge in soccer stadiums around the world, remains such a prominent concern in Russia that FIFA gave referees the ability to interrupt or even call off a game if racist chants or slurs emerge from the crowd, for the first time.
The head of the committee on women, family and children for the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of Parliament, gave an interview to a Moscow radio station this week in which she seemed to criticize mixed-race children as she urged Russian women to avoid sleeping with foreigners during the World Cup.
“Their children will suffer for it. They’ve suffered in the past, since the Soviet period,” the lawmaker, Tamara Pletnyova, said according to the Guardian, which said she was likely referring to mixed-race children born as a result of the Moscow Olympics in 1980. “It’s good if they’re one race, but if they’re of a different race, then it’s worse. We should bear our own children.”
Perhaps things could turn around. Putin had ended his talk in 2010 on a positive note, hoping that the experience of so many people visiting Russia could win hearts and minds.
“You know, a great many cliches survive since the Cold War. They roam Europe as so many flies, buzzing above one’s head to frighten people,” he said. “Things are really quite different. Come and see how we are preparing for the World Cup, and come to see its games. You will get firsthand knowledge of Russia, visit its cities, talk to people and understand this country better.”