The World Cup is turning out to be an unpredictable beast. Today, all eyes here will be on England, as Harry Kane & Co attempt to make progress to the quarter-finals. Expectations, once rather low, have been raised by some moderately pleasing performances in the group stage – and perhaps just as much by the fact that the “big” teams in England’s half of the draw have been dispatched.
Whatever happens, Gareth Southgate has presented himself and his team well: even if England don’t lift the trophy his reputation as manager has been enhanced. Over on the other side of the draw, Brazil and France are playing the kind of football that may well lead to glory. Russia, meanwhile, have surprised almost everyone by playing with determination and panache to reach the last eight.
The hosts’ successful run has merely been the icing on the cake for the tournament’s real winner, however. For Vladimir Putin, this World Cup has already been a remarkable victory for soft power.
Let’s not forget that in the run-up to the competition many voices were warning of the potential for trouble between hooligan elements. Russia’s notorious “ultras” have a well-earned reputation and were said to be up for taking on all-comers. As it is, they appear to have either stayed at home or changed their ways. Perhaps it’s just a bit too hot for fighting.
It also seemed to be a given that black players would be subjected to racist chanting by home fans. Danny Rose was so concerned at the potential for abuse that he asked his family to stay at home, rather than watch him on football’s biggest stage. So far, the hideous monkey chants heard in club fixtures in Russia have not materialised.
The other anxiety was that the police would be heavy-handed in their attempts to keep the peace. Nationalist Cossack groups, armed with their famous whips, seemed set to join regular law enforcement authorities in cracking down on those who might cause trouble, while fans were told to expect to encounter heavily armed police as a matter of course.
As things stand, however, policing has been visible but broadly redundant, with fans behaving themselves in the summer sun. Vodka has, by all reports, been abundant but hasn’t fuelled the violent clashes that many expected. Efforts by Russian authorities quietly to clamp down on home grown hooliganism in the months leading up to the World Cup appear to have been successful. Trouble-makers from elsewhere have been prevented from travelling to the tournament by officials at home.
What’s more, speculation that English fans would receive an icy reception as a result of the Sergei and Yulia Skripal poisoning affair has not been born out on the ground. In March, when diplomatic relations between the UK and Russia were at rock bottom, all talk was of sanctions, protests, boycotts and a new Cold War. Would English fans bear the brunt of Russian anger over British accusations about the deployment of chemical-weapon wielding assassins?
Well no, apparently not. Those who have travelled to Russia to follow Southgate’s men have spoken of the warm reception they have received.
For the Kremlin, and for many Russians, the World Cup provided an opportunity to “convince people that Russia is a normal country”, as my colleague Oliver Carroll reported last month.
In fact, the nation seems to have gone one better, by demonstrating (at least on the surface) that it is the model host of the planet’s most famous sporting event. There has been none of the anxiety about unfinished stadiums and domestic protests that beset the 2014 competition in Brazil; none of the street battles that dogged the Euros in France in 2016. Political disputes have been put firmly on the back-burner. Whether this proves that Russia is “normal” or, rather, is simply evidence of the power of the state to impose its will probably depends on your point of view.
Either way, with seven World Cup matches left after today (nobody counts the third place play-off), it seems pretty clear that Putin is on course to be the major victor of this tournament, his diplomatic hand duly strengthened. We may still dream that football’s coming home; but in fact, home for football may turn out to be a dacha on the outskirts of Moscow.