It’s here. It is finally here. The days leading up to the World Cup are often likened to Christmas Eve, the anticipation of what is to come making millions around the globe giddy and childlike.
But that’s not quite right, because Christmas Day always tends to be a let-down, unless you find the actual Ko-i-Noor diamond and a Tracy Island (not even the Blue Peter one made from toilet rolls and cereal boxes) under the tree.
The World Cup never lets you down. Even the rubbish ones have a dozen moments you’ll either remember forever, or make you say ‘Oh yeah!’ with widened eyes when someone mentions them in conversation years later.
Ahead of us, 64 games spread over 32 days. That’s potentially 104 hours of football, not including penalties. Over the next month there will be just seven days with no football at all. On the first Saturday, there are four games back-to-back. The best thing you can do for now is dive in, but brace yourself for June 29, the first barren day of the tournament, a yawning chasm of nothingness.
In Russia, the atmosphere is building. A consequence of most flights, whatever their destination, having to go through one of Moscow’s three airports is that fans have been congregating there, wherever their teams have been playing. Red Square has become a place to spot fans from around the globe, bonhomie all round.
Events have been taking place in the other host cities ahead of the big kick-off. Fan zones can quite easily look like corporate facades, sponsored facsimiles of where people watch football. But for foreigners arriving in a strange place, they can be handy spots to get your bearings, a focal point to meet and so on. It all looks pretty positive.
That’s on the surface at least. This is a Russian World Cup only in certain parts of Russia. The most easterly host city is Ekaterinburg, still 880 miles from Moscow (roughly the distance between London and Rome), but only about a quarter of the way across this vast country. Word is that if you speak to most people outside of the host cities, you wouldn’t know there was a tournament on.
In those host cities, cosmetic positivity abounds. But of course there is a danger that this surface will mask what lies beneath. This, after all, is a country which Danny Rose has advised his family not to visit, not to watch him at a World Cup, so acute and real is the fear of racism. It’s a country where homosexuality is legislated against. It’s a country where opposition is crushed.
The red carpet will be laid out for anyone travelling to the World Cup, and over the next few weeks we’ll all probably have a very pleasant time. But we will have to do so knowing that we are part of a PR campaign for this regime.
When it comes to the World Cup there’s a temptation to separate the art from the artist, in much the same way as you might enjoy a Morrissey album or a Roman Polanski film, while taking a dim view of the people behind the work.
That’s what we’ll have to do, as best we can. Because this is the World Cup. It might not exactly be the Corinthian ideal of sporting competition it once was, interests political and financial surrounding what began as a 13-team, 18-match, three-venue tournament 88 years ago.
But it’s still the World Cup. It’s still possible to enjoy the thing as the festival of joy and positivity that, on the surface at least, it is. Who knows? Football might just be powerful enough to make a difference. Hey, this the World Cup: it makes giddy optimists of us all.
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