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Will 2018 FIFA World Cup change the way the world sees Russia?

In Russia, one can't stay away from racism, politics or discrimination, but with Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and the rest, one also hopes for great football

The Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Photo: Getty Images
The Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. Photo: Getty Images

The 2018 FIFA World Cup will start on 14 June, with Russia taking on Saudi Arabia in the first match of the tournament. The match should give Russia their first win of the tournament, and, with a relatively easy group rounded out by Egypt and Uruguay, a chance to make it to the knockout rounds.

Off the pitch, things may not be as enjoyable for Russia. On the pitch, they should eventually be knocked out by one of the best sides in the world right now.

When it comes to Russia, politics is unavoidable. We should perhaps be grateful that the US failed to qualify (and Panama did instead), so the cries of witch hunt, collusion, cyber hacking and all the rest can be avoided.

Unavoidably for Russia—through their own actions as much as the West’s desire to paint President Vladimir Putin as a lightning-rod bogeyman—that won’t mean an end to all criticism.

As Europe, and the UK in particular, hold Putin’s actions in Ukraine, and the attempted assassination of Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, against him, the focus will be on how Russian society treats its visitors. Russia has for long been criticized for racism and discrimination in football, particularly by European sides that visit during continental competitions and see their players abused.

This attitude extends to black players who play for Russian sides too. While Western Europe has much to learn about its own history and current contribution to discrimination, that won’t prevent the media from being particularly critical about the Russian World Cup.

Of course, it won’t stop there. There will be homophobia and there will be stories of criminality. More obviously, the Russian fans who professionally and mercilessly beat up England fans in Marseille during Euro 2016, will be keen to do a repeat, against England and any other set of fans with a reputation for aggression—perhaps it is a stroke of luck that Italy won’t be there, along with their belt-wielding fans.

Italy, who reduced their fans to tears with their failure to qualify for the tournament, aren’t the only big names missing. The Netherlands’ slow decline has translated to sitting out this tournament. The US mishandled their squad to such an extent that they lost out to Panama. While this will be Panama’s first appearance in the tournament, and thoroughly deserved, the attention will be on some of the more established sides.

A statue of the official 2018 Fifa World Cup mascot Zabivaka the wolf, installed at Moscow’s. Photo: AFP
A statue of the official 2018 Fifa World Cup mascot Zabivaka the wolf, installed at Moscow’s. Photo: AFP

Attention will be drawn to Argentina. Not because of a particularly devastating or talented squad by their standards, but because of Lionel Messi. Along with Cristiano Ronaldo, he is the footballer everyone knows.

Messi has had another exceptional season in Spain after contractual wrangles over his future with Barcelona and dealings with the taxman. He became the top scorer in Europe for the fifth time, scoring 45 goals on his way to winning yet another La Liga.

With the world and sponsors waiting, Messi will be asked to finally perform on the international stage in a way that he has done almost every year in Spain. That, of course, is nothing unusual for a player of his talent.

Ronaldo might have dragged Portugal to Euro 2016 success, but he did so strapped up and at half-speed. While his force of will was no doubt a contributor, a solid team performance gave the country victory.

It is hard to see Messi inspiring Argentina to manage something similar as the competition will be doubly hard. Nor can Ronaldo be expected to repeat what he did two years ago despite another season of maintaining statistical impressiveness in front of goal. He is now 33, and not quite Superman.

Sweden’s star player Zlatan Ibrahimović will not be at the tournament despite a strong start to his Major League Soccer career with LA Galaxy. He had retired from international football but changed his mind after Sweden qualified by defeating Italy in the play-offs.

The favourites, then, are France, Germany and Brazil. It is unfair to rule out Germany—because it is just so unusual for a side to retain the World Cup—but there is a nagging doubt that it would be beyond manager Joachim Löw to achieve a victory. However, he is there for the long term, with a contract that runs to 2022 only recently signed.

Policemen detain protesters ahead of President Vladimir Putin’s inauguration ceremony in Moscow on 5 May (the poster reads “I am against corruption”). Photo: Reuters

Germany are not just the team from 2014 with four added years of experience and decay—it is its own team. They have to deal with the injury to Manuel Neuer, who was included in the provisional squad of 27 in a way that a lesser player would never have warranted.

Ahead of him, or his replacement, names like Marvin Plattenhardt, Jonathan Tah, Jonas Hector, Leon Goretzka, Nils Petersen and Timo Werner demonstrate how Löw has brought an entirely new strand of players to compete with established stars like Jérôme Boateng, Mats Hummels, Sami Khedira, Toni Kroos, Thomas Müller, Marcos Reus and Mesut Özil.

The sheer amount of world-class talent that Germany can call upon—they used the Fifa Confederations Cup Russia 2017 as a testing ground for their plan B players—makes it hard to ignore the idea that Germany will dominate and triumph.

Their biggest competition is France. Didier Deschamps perhaps had a tougher selection decision to make. Not because his side is notably better than Germany, but because of the sheer number of players to choose from. As a result some big names miss out.

Anthony Martial showed enough promise in his first season under José Mourinho at Manchester United to suggest that he was going to make the best of his talent, knuckle down under a disciplinarian, and find his most effective methods. His second season demonstrated that Mourinho has little time for inconsistent youngsters. He was swiftly booted out from the first team for Alexis Sanchez, and served up little to suggest that Mourinho had made the wrong choice.

The World Cup trophy and official match ball Telstar 18. Photo: Alamy

Another chance somewhere else seems likely, but it has not come in time to earn him a place in Russia. Karim Benzema’s middling season for Real Madrid has cost him too, and Alexandre Lacazette’s struggles at Arsenal must see him rue a missed transfer to Atlético Madrid.

France’s hopes rest on three forward players. One, they need Paul Pogba to decide to embrace greatness, rather than assume it. They need Antoine Griezmann to make the case that he really deserves to play for Barcelona or Real Madrid, rather than be the best player at Spain’s third club. They need Kylian Mbappé, a teenager, to transform from someone who is brilliant to someone as good as his Paris Saint-Germain teammate Neymar.

Neymar famously missed the semi-final of the last World Cup. An injury kept him out, which was sad, but the Brazilian side reacted as if he was dead, mourning him, not his absence.

While Germany probably would have been victors regardless, Brazil seemed to be as psychologically skittled as they had been in the final of 1998 against France in Paris.

This time, they have a much more impressive squad, and they have a fit Neymar. Talent runs throughout the positions, in fact. Alisson and Ederson solved a traditional weak spot, with the latter having emerged as a rival to David de Gea as the Premier League’s best goalkeeper.

Defenders Thiago Silva, Miranda and Marcelo no longer have age on their side, but they are experienced performers in the top flight. Given that they have Casemiro, Fernandinho, Philippe Coutinho, Willian and Fred in midfield, and Gabriel Jesus and Douglas Costa, among others, in attack, they are a side capable of beating any team they face. What remains to be seen is if they are strong enough not just with their feet, but in spirit.

Panama’s Jose Calderon (centre) poses for a selfie after disembarking from an airplane at Saransk airport on 7 June 2018, as Panama’s national football team arrives ahead of the Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup. Photo: AFP

The wonderful aspect of past World Cups, which has now been lost, was the thrill and shock of seeing a totally unknown player emerge as a world beater. Now, because of the internet and the rapacious scouting networks of European sides, every seven-year-old in Australia who has performed at least six Cruyff turns is given a contract, with his parents awarded jobs to get him into that particular country.

There will be no shattering surprises over June and July, but there is a chance for players who have promise to deliver. They can dazzle and surprise, either to kick-start their career or to define it.

For Egypt, Mohamed Salah could be enough to shock any of the better sides on an off-day. Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and other Belgian players have the talent to—in admittedly weird circumstances that would demand both luck and the unexpected—win the whole thing. With Poland, Robert Lewandowksi can show why he is still the best traditional No.9 in the world. Javier Hernández might show a flash of his poaching talent to rescue a point, or even steal a critical victory, if given the chance.

Where we should not look for any thrill, though, is England.

It had been a tradition for England’s golden generation, only now properly expunged with the excommunication of Wayne Rooney, to consider greatness at the back of their minds, and to be weighed down by the pressure of such a thing. No such hope exists any more, for three main reasons.

England have demonstrated convincingly that they do not have the ability or psychological resilience. They could barely rouse themselves from their self-hatred, fear and overconfidence to string three passes together.

A sign with the logo of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia on display near the Kremlin before in central Moscow. Photo: Reuters

Unable to meet their own over-inflated expectations, and the inability to even do the basics, they collapsed under less exacting situations. Euro 2016 saw them implode against Iceland. A decent team, and they achieved superbly, but they were still Iceland, with all the limitations that imposes.

The second reason is manager Gareth Southgate. Whether or not he embraces the idea of expectation management—promise less, and what you do achieve seems more worthy of recognition, and takes the pressure off—he was clear that he held the opinion that they weren’t good enough, and there was no point in ever pretending otherwise again. In post-Brexit England, the country is simply too distracted by everything collapsing around it, despite their own gammon-hued bluster, to notice anything to do with football.

The third, also linked to Brexit, is unalloyed English racism. It is not crossing the line to point out that Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli and others are roundly criticized by the press, and much of the country, simply for being young, black and rich. As English society’s hatred has come to the fore, so has its relationship with its national team broken down.

The World Cup promises much. It promises football brilliance above all else. Players like Messi, Ronaldo, Müller, Özil, Pogba, Salah, Kylian Mbappé, and even England’s Harry Kane, are some of the best we have ever had the pleasure of watching. It promises the chance for young men to achieve greatness, and inspire not only those in their own countries, but much of the billions-strong audience.

But it also promises plenty of grim news, with discrimination, violence and geopolitical cynicism high on the agenda. In 2018, it would simply be tempting fate to hope the former wins over the latter, but it doesn’t mean we can’t hope.

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