Vladimir Putin is not a soccer fan — ice hockey has always been his passion — but eight years ago, in the hours after FIFA declared Russia would host the 2018 World Cup, he told a story designed to illustrate that he grasped just what the event, and the sport, could do for his country, and for the world.
Putin had landed in Zurich only a few hours earlier, after Russia had been awarded the tournament. As the country’s prime minister at the time, he wished to bask in the glow of an unexpected victory, not associate himself with even the possibility of defeat.
He was rushed immediately to a celebratory news conference. The tone, for the most part, was exultant, almost crowing, as Putin explained how Russia’s oligarchs and corporations would be leaned on to finance the billion-dollar jamboree. Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, in the audience, beamed at the idea.
As he told the story, though, Putin grew almost wistful, romantic. He was born in Leningrad just after World War II, he said. As a child, he had been told how the city had suffered during the conflict: The siege of what is now St. Petersburg lasted almost 900 days. There had been “no electricity, no running water, no heat in a Russian winter.” German shells landed every day.
But he spoke of how — at the height of the siege — “football matches were held, even at that tragic time.” They had “helped people stand tall and survive.”
“Football brings a spark into the lives of people, young and old,” he said.
FILE – In this Friday, Dec. 1, 2017 file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the 2018 soccer World Cup draw in the Kremlin in Moscow. Vladimir Putin’s Russia was always going to be a controversial host, but few could have imagined the situation that greets the 2018 World Cup. The annexation of Crimea, alleged U.S. election interference, the war in Syria and a poisoned spy in Britain are just a few of the storms surrounding the Kremlin before Putin officially declares the tournament open June 14. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev, File)
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In this Dec. 1 file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the 2018 World Cup draw at the Kremlin in Moscow.
That was what Putin dreamed the World Cup could do for Russia, went the metaphor: to illuminate a nation, to inspire a people, to help a vibrant, rapidly modernizing nation stand tall. He wanted the World Cup to showcase that Russia was not what it used to be but had become something new, something different. He wanted to prove that “we are an open and transparent country to the world.”
The hundreds of thousands of fans who would descend on Russia in eight years’ time, he said, would find facilities of “the highest standard,” delivered “on time and to perfection.” They would discover a country that was nothing like the one …read more