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Whatever happens، Vladimir Putin is winning the World Cup

Monday 02/July/2018 - 12:10 PM
Sada El Balad
"USA Today" news network- By "Martin Rogers":

Let’s just get this bit out of the way first، just in case he’s reading this. Vladimir Putin did not fix the World Cup.

Despite the immediate array of social media jokes claiming the Russian president was responsible for his country’s dramatic penalty shootout victory over Spain to reach the quarterfinal on Sunday، it wasn’t down to Putin. Instead it was a display of extreme resiliency and courage، sprinkled with a touch of fortune، that gave the host nation’s new favorite team a 4-3 triumph from the spot after things ended 1-1 following extra time.

Yet if Russia’s chief political tough guy had been either minded or capable of scheming the result of his choosing during soccer’s biggest tournament، this would have been it. An underdog Russia toppling one of the great teams of modern soccer، while screams rained down and patriotic chants roared around Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium?

No matter what happens next، Putin has won the World Cup.

His methods، policies and ideologies haven’t changed، and remain as unpalatable as ever to many، but that notwithstanding it is hard to see how things could have fared much better for Putin.

He is a man who likes victories، and beating the tournament favorite in a monumental upset of dramatic execution is a huge one، but he can also reel off a different list of triumphs since this event began.
At a time when Russia’s international reputation has taken a beating، Putin targeted the World Cup as an opportunity to repair it. “People will understand what Russia is when they come here،” he said، two weeks ago. “There are still a lot of stereotypes left over from the past.”

The celebration of soccer has showed off the country as a tourist destination، and those who visited found sunny weather، the majesty of Moscow and a far higher level of open friendliness than expected. It has been safe and predominantly incident-free، while the high level of soccer has contributed to a perception that this is one of the best World Cups in recent times.

The World Cup’s global reach has allowed Putin to be a statesman، hosting presidents and prime ministers and even attempting to find accord between Israel and Palestine.

Great Britain’s political leaders said they wouldn’t come، but Donald Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton has، asking Putin for tips on how to stage a successful tournament amid chatter about more complex topics. Sweden، meanwhile، which originally issued a diplomatic boycott، backed down when its team reached the knockout stage.

The soccer frenzy has allowed Putin to get things done on the home front. Pushing through major policy decisions such as the rise of the pension age while the country was swept along in World Cup fever attracted criticism، yet just as the tournament obscured news about the fresh law، so too did it dampen the effect of the vocal disapproval.

And rightly or wrongly، with hundreds of thousands of fans from around the world visiting، no one is talking much about Crimea، or human rights or political prisoners.

But for all of his practical aims، nothing makes this World Cup seem more like a Russian win than Russia actually winning. There was little to no buzz about Stanislav Cherchesov’s team in the build-up، coming in off seven winless games and a lowly 70th spot in the world rankings.

Now، it is a genuine contender to win it all and has the nation firmly behind it.

“I think half the country will find out there is a World Cup when the whistle blows،” Cherchesov said before the tournament.

They know now.

Spain was a team with far more pedigree، but Russia showed its passion and ferocity and a refusal to lose. After suffering the disappointment of Sergey Ignashevich conceding an early own goal، it equalized through Artem Dzyuba before half-time، then held on for dear، defensive life.

When Spain could not break through and the dreaded penalty shootout arrived، Russia’s exhausted legs did not fail them. Ignashevich atoned for his earlier error by slotting one home، before goalkeeper and captain Igor Akinfeev wrote his name into national sporting folklore.

Akinfeev guessed right to stop Spain’s third kick from Koke، then produced an incredible stop with his outstretched left cleat to keep out Iago Aspas، sending the stadium – and the country – into delirium.

"Emotions are simple. You show your emotions when you direct the team during the game، and now its over and I’m thinking only about the next game،" Russian coach Cherchesov said after Sunday's win. "These are not very sophisticated emotions."

Getting through the group stage was seen as enough of a challenge، and having negotiated that comfortably، an honorable defeat to a team with Spain’s pedigree would have been an acceptable outcome. This is so much more، and who knows what it still to come?

Everywhere you look in Moscow and further afield there are replica jerseys of the national team on Russian bodies. Chants of “Ros-si-ya” don’t just spring up in stadiums، but in parks، underground trains and supermarkets.

At the foot of the monument to Marshal Zhukov، next to the Kremlin، a crowd in the thousands loudly celebrated victory، draping themselves joyously in a 60-foot long flag. Even typically unsmiling army and security personnel enjoyed the moment، laughing and high-fiving along with the throng.

A few steps away in Red Square، is where the police forces، under government orders، have relaxed the usually strict rules on behavior. Impromptu games of street soccer have gone on deep into the night as Russia tries its best to present a friendly face to the world.

International visitors were thrilled to party with the hosts. Fans from Peru، long since eliminated، and Mexico، Colombia، England، Panama، Japan and Egypt and Morocco were among those spotted roaring their support for the Russians.

The team has heroes، like star scorers Dzyuba and Denis Cheryshev، and now Akinfeev، but the big winner of all this is Putin. His politics haven’t changed، in fact، getting people to stop talking about them is the biggest political win of all.

Like it or not، that is the power of sports and the force of the World Cup. Hosting one is an epic production، and this one has gone off without a hitch.

As for the inspired run of the Russian team، that’s one part of this tournament that isn’t Putin’s doing.

You know it’s not scripted، because it’s stranger than fiction.

Edited by Rasha Mohamed

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