Russia hosts World Cup in heat of battle with West

By Agency Published on May 13, 2018 02:38 PM IST

Moscow: The World Cup kicks off in Russia in a month's time with the hosts at loggerheads with the West and intent on using the football showpiece to trumpet their superpower status.

Russia was a controversial choice when it was handed the rights to the world's most watched event in a 2010 vote now tainted by bribery charges. That choice is possibly only more controversial today.

The years since have seen Moscow clash with the West over everything from Syria and Ukraine to the poisoning of a former Russian double agent in England.

Russia was even banned as a country from this winter's Pyeongchang Olympics after being accused of state-sponsored doping at the Sochi Games it hosted four year earlier.

The diplomatic barbs have been laced with Cold War-era venom and accompanied by the largest expulsion of diplomats in history.

Yet Vladimir Putin is riding as high today as he was eight years ago. The former KGB spy's popularity with Russians remains unshakeable and his presence on the international arena is more dominant than when he first came to power in 2000.

The scandals and diplomatic wrangles have failed to generate a repeat of the boycott that saw nearly half the world stay away from the 1980 Moscow Olympics over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And Putin will have the chance to wield the soft power afforded by the football showpiece to project himself as a man of domestic achievement and global bearing.

Yet the tournament also comes riddled with peril for Putin. Russia has spent in excess of USD 13 billion (11 billion euros) - a World Cup record - on giving many of the 11 host cities their first post-Soviet facelifts. Host city Saransk, for example, is best known for being the capital of a deserted region where Russia has set up female penal colonies.

Airports were rebuilt and expanded to accommodate crowds whose size Russia may not see again for some time. Sleek hotels have gone up in places tourists rarely venture. Twelve voluminous stadiums now loom over cities in the European part of Russia after being completed in the nick of time.

A part of Putin's legacy will hinge on what happens to it all when the fans go home.

The USD 50 billion believed to have been spent on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi has had mixed results. The Black Sea resort city looks modern and feels electric. Residents whizz around on silky smooth roads and travel in style from a comfortable airport and train station.

But the surrounding mountains that hosted the snow events are filled with abandoned hotels and FIFA will want to avoid such white elephants. Seeing the World Cup transform other cities into what Sochi itself has become will be a monumental achievement that could unlock Russia's economic potential.

Filling them with prestigious buildings no one ever uses will turn into another expensive mistake.