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Russia's global gamble is about to be put to the test

Here we go, eight years in the making and Russia gets what it paid for, four weeks at the controls of the football mothership. It’s a pity the Russian national team is not up to much.

Short of President Vladimir Putin and the full rig of bemedalled state officials doing keepie uppies in the centre circle, the world will have to settle for more modest entertainment when Russia open against Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.

Not to worry. Rather like a first date, opening matches are often best got out of the way. Russia come to the piece with their lowest ever FIFA ranking of 70. Nevertheless, they will expect to make some kind of statement against Saudi Arabia, a team bedeviled by a torrent of coaching changes. A win would be ideal for Putin but should the earth resist Russia’s attempts to move it, there is a parallel game unfolding alongside the football.

World Cup 2018 was always a geopolitical two-step by Putin, a means of bolstering esteem at home while projecting the virility and strength of a new-model Russia across the globe.

The World Cup has never been bigger. The audience for Russia 2018 is expected to exceed the 3.2 billion eyeballs that tuned in across all platforms during the tournament in Brazil. You begin to see the value in spending $12bn to host an event of this scale when it offers a whole month of curated propaganda.

Except when Sepp Blatter announced Russia as hosts eight years ago none could have foreseen the political convulsions that would shatter the peace on her borders and alter the delicate ecosystem holding international relations together.

Since Blatter raised Russia’s arm in celebration, Putin’s regime has annexed Crimea, destabilised Ukraine, climbed into Basher Al Assad’s Syrian bed, been outed as the biggest drug cheats in Olympic history at Sochi and embarked on all manner of cyber mischief and election meddling in foreign states, not to mention the poisoning of Russian citizens abroad via the application of military grade toxins on door knockers.

The staging of the World Cup can be seen as part of the same process that has detained the great nation that is mother Russia, stretching more than 6,000 miles west to east and 2,500 north to south, host to 143m people, for the past 150 years.

Preliminary Draw of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia

Russia is still wrestling with identity and trying to establish what kind of country she wants to be. No easy business when for so long Russia saw itself as a divine state, her culture and patriarchal structures the greatest expression of godliness on earth, her orthodox Russian Christianity a bulwark against the Ottoman Empire after the fall of 15th Century Constantinople.

The old certainties of Tsarist Russia began to crumble with the serf reforms of 1861 and continued to erode through the cataclysms of revolution, two world wars and the Cold War, leaving 21st Century Russia in the same fundamental state of flux with west-leaning sympathisers in a constant tension with conservative forces. The World Cup is thus Russia’s latest attempt to control the air space and make some kind of global impression via the mechanism of soft power. It is, however, not what Putin thought it might be when the bid process began, and not only for the reasons noted.

Since Andrey Arshavin led Russia to the semi-finals of the 2008 European Championships the national team has fallen inexorably from view. Their most influential player, Igor Denisov, is at odds with the coach, Stanislav Cherchesov, and is not in the squad, leaving goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev as the team’s talisman. In that respect, at least, circumstance sees Russia mirror it’s greatest period when led by it’s most celebrated figure, goalkeeper Lev Yashin.

The great Yashin is visible all over Russia on official World Cup posters, a nostalgic nod to the post-War Soviet era when he symbolised a self-confident nation on the up. With Yashin between the sticks the Soviet Union were Olympic Champions in 1956 and four years later were crowned champions of Europe. Yashin remains the only keeper to win the Ballon d’Or, awarded in 1963.

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The resurrection of Yashin to 2018 poster boy is deeply symbolic since Russia is once more jostling for position in the international political space just as it was when challenging the United States for hegemony in the 1950s and 1960s. Putin’s victory in the presidential elections in March is being seen as an opportunity to change course, to tackle failings in the economy, to improve living standards, drive technological innovation and present Russia as a progressive and relevant world power.

You would have to say, like his team, Putin has his work cut out over the next four weeks if he is to transform public opinion on this side of the Volga. As you might expect the Russian players are talking up their prospects, hoping home advantage becomes a wind at their backs. Equally, few outside the squad see them making an impact, and claim progression from the group is the best for which they can hope.

In the post-Soviet period Russian football reflects its society in struggling to settle on a workable identity. In the old USSR, the national team was relentlessly systematic, deploying tactics and methods honed at the club sides, which were essentially military-sponsored teams. Without the connectivity and shared ideals of a system everybody understood, there is little will or discipline to tackle the issue.

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As in England, post-Soviet Russia is awash with cash at the top of the game and owners all too ready to splash it on foreign coaches and players rather than invest in the development of domestic talent. Also like England, too few Russian players are prepared to travel to earn a living, which further stifles the spread of ideas.

Cherchesov has erred on the side of youth with his selection, and in 21-year-old CSKA Moscow midfielder Aleksandr Golovin, already linked to Arsenal and Barcelona, he has at least one player capable of whipping up a storm. That said, the defeat to Austria in their penultimate warm-up game followed March losses against Brazil and France, leaving an air of despondency that could not be lifted by the concluding draw with Turkey.

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Writing for the Sovetsky Sport website, the former USSR international Evgeny Lovchev remarked: “Everyone in Russia knows that our national team is rather weak. We’ll be satisfied if Russia just qualify from the group. We don’t look any further, because in the round of 16 we’d probably have to play either Spain or Portugal and we wouldn’t have a chance. We were fortunate enough to have a favourable draw. We really can reach the round of 16, but this is our limit.”

Maybe, but since we are still in the pre-tournament nirvana of all possible outcomes, when every team has skin in the game and dreams are free, let’s go easy on the melancholy. With winnable matches against Egypt and Uruguay to come, Thursday at the Luzhniki is no time for introspection.

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