FIFA's World Cup legacy in Russia should be measured by the people, not the politics
MOSCOW -- In this line of work, you're taught to be cynical and contrarian. So when Gianni Infantino, the FIFA President, says "Today I am a happy man ... as far as I am concerned, we all fell in love with Russia," you want to blow holes in it.
It's very easy to do. From the way the World Cup even got to Russia (remember the "destroyed" computers?), to the state-sponsored doping program that gutted the country's Olympic medal count and led to a lifetime ban for the minister of sport and former head of the Russian FA, Vitaly Mutko, to the fact that it smacked of classic bread and circuses fare.
Give the people a show and they won't bother asking questions about corruption (Transparency International ranks Russia 135th out of 180 nations, substantially lower than Brazil or South Africa), downed Malaysian airliners and dissidents who keep going in and out of jail.
The latter are valid issues -- and there are a host of others -- but they belong to a political sphere, not a sporting one. The former are sporting issues and there remain unanswered questions (and unprosecuted individuals), but they are just one facet of Russia. What Infantino was talking about -- you hope -- was the way a nation rolled out the red carpet for the world and bent over backwards for visitors over more than a month of football.
Did we fall in love? Or were we just seduced into a one-month stand?
What's the difference? The difference is legacy. What do we take from this and what is left behind for Russia, or, at a minimum, for the Russian whom this World Cup touched.
Many Russians I spoke to, both expats and Muscovites, drew parallels prior to the tournament with the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the first behind what was then the Iron Curtain. It was seen by many as a seminal event, one where ordinary Russians welcomed the world and, for the first time in decades, felt a part of it, despite the fact that 66 nations boycotted the Games in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Reading contemporaneous reports from western media at the time, it's striking how much they echoed those of Russia 2018. Smiling volunteers, beautiful state-of-the-art facilities, surgically clean streets and a welcoming population battling gamely through language barriers and a Cyrillic alphabet that makes menus and subway signs tricky.
Then, as now, there are plenty reasons to be cynical. To many western eyes -- at least these ones -- a certain type of totalitarian communism has been replaced by a certain type of totalitarian consumerism, at least in the big cities. The cleanliness and order in the city centers and in places where tourists and wealthy Russians tend to mix is extreme to the point of being unsettling. The brands, clothes and music were what you'd find in many corners of the world. It may not be a global village, it certainly is a global mall.
But then, that's just the landscape. And this is the important bit. That landscape was populated by sentient beings, whether Mexican fans, Russian locals or the journalist I met from Kazakhstan who had grown up with Moscow as his capital city but was only able to visit it now that it was in a foreign country. And they mixed and interacted and cross-pollinated, even if it was just a smile or a selfie or a "Holy-Cow-Did-You-Just-See-That?" glance after a goal on one of the ubiquitous big screens.
That's obviously the sanitised World Cup experience for locals and visitors alike. You can't blame Russia for wanting to put its best face forward. Every city or country organizing a major event tries to do the same. The scare stories about crime, racism and hooliganism that we all read before the World Cup never manifested themselves. It doesn't mean they don't exist, but it does mean that they are not so uncontrollable that for five weeks the country can help keep them under wraps.
Many of us also saw a different, less scrubbed up version. Mine came in Nizhny Novgorod, the night of the Germany vs. Sweden game. I watched the end of the game in a near empty restaurant, the waiter biblically slow because -- quite obviously -- he was watching in the kitchen. When Toni Kroos' free kick went in, I actually heard him shouting. The adrenaline was so high that there was no way I was going to bed. I made sure I had enough podcasts loaded, popped in the earphones and wandered out of my hotel, across the Oka River and past the illuminated stadium. I walked and walked, past the statue of Maxim Gorky, past the Lokomotiv stadium through tower blocks, down to low-rise housing with poorly paved streets.
It was no longer spick-and-span. There was still neon, but it was cheap, worn and flickering. That's when I met them. Volodya, a man in his 60s and his sons, Slava and Alex, both in their 40s. Volodya was drunk and started speaking to me in Russian. His sons, either more sober or more able to fake it, apologised on his behalf. They were on their way back from a relative's house. Volodya was recently retired from the motor works down the road, the one that got Nizhny Novgorod -- then known as Gorky -- nicknamed the "Detroit of the U.S.S.R." He had worked on the line, assembling engines. Alex worked there now, except he was a security guard.
"Too much time in the gym, not enough time studying," said his brother, Slava. He was the only one with whom I could communicate, in rudimentary Spanish. He had played the piano, the violin (or maybe it was the viola) and some other instrument I don't understand. He had lived in Cuba, teaching music, until a few years ago. He had a Cuban wife who split from him and moved to Florida. So he returned home to live with his dad and his brother in the same apartment he had grown up in. Their mother, who had also worked at the motor plant, had died years earlier.
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Slava and I talked while Alex smiled and fiddled with his phone and Volodya sang to himself. I told them about myself and my family; Slava filled me in on their thoughts. They said the stadium looked beautiful lit up at night (it did) and but they had not watched any games, either in person or on TV. Slava didn't like football (or sports of any kind), Alex was into UFC, Volodya liked hockey and interrupted his singing long enough to say: "Ovechkin!"
Slava had no idea what he was going to do. There was an oversupply of music teachers in Russia. He'd look for a job at some point, but as of right now, his dad's pension and brother's salary were enough to go around. Besides, he was busy volunteering, visiting senior citizens and playing in hospitals and old people's homes.
"They smile when they recognise the music," he said.
It was well after three o'clock in the morning by the time I got to bed, but it was time well spent. I had connected, in a way that was at once mundane and meaningful. To me and to them.
It was sheer dumb luck -- and whatever Volodya had to drink -- that brought us together. But we had been together, and that's what mattered. I think the majority of those who traveled to Russia whether as fans or media, had similar interactions at some point. Ones that went beyond wanting to make a buck from visitors, or even basic hospitality.
Time and again, you encountered folks who wanted to make a connection particularly away from the big cities like Saint Petersburg and Moscow, places where the menus are almost exclusively in Cyrillic, the lights are a little less bright and the sight of a foreigner -- particularly from places like Panama and Korea, countries they were only ever going to see on a map -- is very much a novelty.
More so than the stadiums, some of which are magnificent and will hopefully continue to get a lot of use but ultimately are just giant bowls in which a select few get to watch games that most of the world watches on screens -- that's the legacy of this World Cup: the individual connections that were made.
For those who were there, the world became that little bit smaller.
There are obviously deeper and far more significant issues when it comes to Russia's relationship with the rest of the world (and vice-versa). It was never football's job to resolve them.
All it could do -- and has done -- is make some people feel part of a greater whole.