World Cup 2018 is Russia’s turn to play ball
It is happening at a difficult time for the world and in a nation beset with problems
When Saudi Arabia took on hosts Russia at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Thursday, the 80,000 fans in the stands were a tiny fraction of the nearly three billion people around the world to whom the kick-off of the 2018 FIFA World Cup was available on television. For the next month or so, for lovers of the Beautiful Game, the world will appear to be a happier, perhaps kinder, place. In the last edition in Brazil, the Vatican had called for a ceasefire in hostilities in global trouble spots. Four years later, Pope Francis’s native Argentina, led by Lionel Messi — who may be making his final appearance in a World Cup — is again one of the front-runners. Still, all the individual brilliance on the field may not take away from the fact that the Cup is happening at a difficult time for the world, and that too, in Russia.
Eight years ago, when Russia clinched the bid to host the Cup,Vladimir Putin exulted in the moment. Over the next few years, the country has been embroiled in the wars in Ukraine and Syria, a misadventure in Crimea, witnessed economic decline, faced allegations of interference in the US elections, and held guilty for an Olympic doping scandal. Despite the stringent sanctions , Putin is playing host to the world with Russia spending an estimated 678 billion rubles on projects for the tournament, 70% of which is estimated to have come from taxpayers.
The Cup moving to Russia highlights its foray into new territories. In 2002, Asia got its first Cup when Japan and South Korea hosted . In 2010, it graced the African continent with the Bafana Bafana playing hosts. This year’s tournament at a time when Russia is back in geopolitical focus, will be followed by the Cup making both -- its maiden foray to West Asia and a statement loaded with political undertones. The pundits are backing Brazil, Germany and France. But don’t count out Spain and Argentina, with Belgium this year’s dark horses. May the best team win!