- - Sunday, June 10, 2018

MOSCOW — The World Cup, the soccer world’s massive monthlong party, kicks off in Moscow this week, but not even the most enthusiastic Russian soccer fan believes the country’s woeful national team has a realistic hope of lifting the winner’s golden trophy in the 32-nation event, which runs Thursday through July 15.

Whether a poor performance on the pitch will matter to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin is another matter altogether.

Winless in seven games and with just one shot on goal in their past two matches, the Russian national soccer team was jeered off the field after a 1-1 draw with a weak Turkey side in Moscow on Tuesday evening. That was the team’s last match before the tournament officially begins.

“This is our worst national side ever,” said the state television commentator, summing up the black mood of millions of Russian soccer fans.

Even the cocksure Mr. Putin, preparing for his first major event since winning another six-year term in power in March, acknowledges that Russia has hardly any chance of success, tipping soccer’s traditional powerhouses such as Argentina, Brazil, Germany and Spain as those most likely to win. As for Team Russia, the president simply says he hopes they will “fight until the end.” That end is unlikely to be long in coming if the home team can’t survive its initial four-nation grouping.

A popular question among soccer fans here is: “Who are you going to support when Russia goes out before the playoffs?”

But Mr. Putin is unlikely to lose too much sleep over the likely lack of soccer glory for his country. As with the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, Moscow is using the tournament to promote the image of Russia as a powerful and confident nation able to organize events on an international level. It’s also an attempt, analysts say, to polish Russia’s global reputation, which has been tarnished by its military interventions in Syria and Ukraine, as well as accusations of election meddling in the United States and elsewhere.

No expense has been spared for what is, after the Olympics, the biggest, most lucrative and most-watched event on the world’s sporting calendar. The Kremlin says it has pumped a record $11 billion into the event — an estimate floated late last week put the figure at $14 billion — and that does not include sparkling new stadiums and infrastructure, which the government says would have been built in any case. Twelve stadiums in 11 cities will host the games.

“For the Russian authorities, the sporting element of the World Cup is of secondary significance. Its use for propaganda purposes is far more important,” said Igor Gretskiy, a professor of international relations at St. Petersburg State University. “The Kremlin will use the tournament to demonstrate that Russia has not been isolated and that sanctions imposed by Western powers are toothless and ineffective.”

Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, sparked outrage in March when he said Mr. Putin would use the World Cup for propaganda in the same way that Adolf Hitler exploited the 1936 Berlin Olympics to promote Nazi ideas.

Russia has many things it can be criticized for, but this is extremely disrespectful to those people who died in the war against Nazi Germany,” said Robert Ustian, a Russian anti-racism campaigner. An estimated 28 million Soviet soldiers and citizens lost their lives during World War II. Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said Mr. Johnson had a “poisoned” mind.

Suppressing dissent

Russia’s security services have been tasked with ensuring that there are no embarrassing displays of dissent in front of international media at Mr. Putin’s showcase event. Police have tightened laws on public protests and detained 19 members of opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption movement during nationwide raids. Their crimes? Tweeting about protests.

Mr. Navalny is serving a 30-day sentence on protest-related charges. “Let’s call things by their real names. This is political repression,” said Lubov Sobol, one of the opposition activists still at liberty.

It’s not only political dissidents who worry the Kremlin. In the run-up to the World Cup, law enforcement agencies are clamping down on the country’s notorious soccer hooligans, who ran riot in Marseille, France, during the Euro 2016 tournament. About 150 people have been placed on a blacklist, and Federal Security Service (FSB) officers have been warning known hooligans not to spoil the occasion.

“I’m absolutely certain that nothing even close to what took place in Marseille will happen here. The authorities are a lot more in control of the hooligan firms here. There is total surveillance,” said Alexander Shprygin, the former leader of a Russian fans association. Although the U.S. soccer team has not qualified for the World Cup, tens of thousands of American fans are expected to travel to Russia for the event.

In some respects, the timing of the World Cup couldn’t be better for Mr. Putin. The tournament comes amid widening differences among European countries over economic sanctions that were imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014.

On Tuesday, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte broke ranks with allies in western Europe by calling for an end to the sanctions and for Moscow to be brought back into the international fold. Mr. Putin was using a trip to Austria, one of Europe’s more Moscow-friendly countries, to urge an end to the sanctions, which he described as “harmful for everyone.”

President Trump on Friday even raised the prospect of readmitting Russian to the Group of Seven leading industrial nations, which was known as the G-8 until Russia was ousted for its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

Russian organizers, perhaps to curry favor with the powers that be in Washington, have floated the idea of inviting Alexander Ovechkin, the Russian captain and star of the Stanley Cup-winning Washington Capitals hockey team, to attend the opening game Thursday between Russia and Saudi Arabia, organizer Alexey Sorokin told the Tass news service on Friday.

Despite the Kremlin’s bluster, Western economic sanctions, along with lower prices for oil, have hurt Russia. Over 3 million people have been plunged into poverty since the sanctions were imposed under President Obama, raising social tensions and highlighting wealth inequality that is among the highest in the world.

Mr. Putin is clearly hoping the World Cup will provide a boost to the struggling economy. Some 570,000 foreign fans are expected to visit Russia during the tournament, and Kremlin officials insist the event will spark a massive increase in tourism and create jobs. Despite high costs and intense Western media criticism, many Russians say the 2010 Sochi Winter Olympics also proved an athletic and economic success, boosting the visibility of a new ski resort on the Black Sea.

Most analysts say, however, that government predictions of a $30.8 billion boost to Russia’s gross domestic product over 10 years from the soccer championship are unrealistic. “We see very limited economic impact at the national level given the limited duration of the World Cup and the very large size of the country’s economy,” said analysts at credit rating agency Moody’s.

There is unlikely to be much backlash for Mr. Putin if Russia’s national team performs as badly as expected.

Many Russians are simply proud that their country is hosting such a major sporting event, and soccer fans are excited about seeing the world’s greatest players in the flesh.

Some fans are even somewhat relieved that Russia is unlikely to progress too far: “For me, this is a tournament of two halves,” said Viktor Shenderovich, a well-known writer and soccer fan. “For the first half, while Russia is still involved, the country will be gripped by patriotic hysteria. But in the second half, after our team has been knocked out, I’ll be able to sit back and calmly enjoy the rest of the World Cup.”

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