Russia has finally opened its doors to the world

Russian players train at Luzhniki Stadium ahead of the opening World Cup game against Saudi Arabia
Russian players train at Luzhniki Stadium ahead of the opening World Cup game against Saudi Arabia
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Were you to find yourself in the Alekseevskaya district of Moscow, north of Red Square, you would know little of the World Cup. The four-lane carriageway that cuts through it pipes people in and out of the city at a decent rate, and, in the neighbourhood, folk get on with their business untouched by World Cup fever.

Only when you drop down into the Metro are you reminded that some kind of festival is brewing, and the atmosphere shifts the closer you get to the centre, where clusters of 
foreign nationals liveried in the colours of their teams gather for heavy-duty selfies before the obvious landmarks.

The locals are too busy to notice, showing a Parisian or Londonish disdain for tourists. It is good to be reminded that, in whichever metropolis you call home, the bump and grind of daily life weighs on us all in much the same way. It informs us too that the Russians doing their mundane duties without the walls of the Kremlin are not to be confused with those inside the fortress doing the heinous work of state.

The heavyweight socio-political commentaries into which so many sports reports have strayed already at this World Cup have tended to chuck the citizenry in with the political class, as if Yevgeny Bloggs volunteered to take back Crimea, disrupt and divide Ukraine, side with Basher al-Assad in Syria or daub door knockers in Salisbury with military-grade toxins.

One hope over the coming four weeks must be that right-thinking Russians might be spared the demonisation earned on their behalf by the regime. Imagine if everybody in Russia thought we were all Faragistas on the basis of Ukip’s Brexit bombast? The 
staging of this event is, in fact, a dangerous propaganda move by a country struggling to reach an accommodation with itself about what it is to be Russian in times of rapid and accelerating change.

This process has been going on since the serf reforms of 1861, when the vast agrarian population was given notional freedom from ancient ties to the gentry. The epic convulsions of war and revolution in the early part of the 20th century led to the joys of the Soviet state, the retreat from which is still playing out with Russia forever caught in the ancient tension between western-leaning sympathisers and conservative forces. The World Cup is thus both a nod to modernity and inclusion – we love football just like you, just watch us put on a show – while at the same time re-inforcing ideas of power and influence for the benefit of the keep-Russia-Russian brigade.

It was the British who are ultimately responsible for bringing football to Russia, via the agency of migrant workers in St Petersburg at the back end of the 19th century. War and revolution saw the old St Petersburg clubs and leagues disband in favour of factory teams linked to the heavy industries and the military between the wars. The high point of Soviet optimism in the period after the Second World War was also the apotheosis of the USSR team. Interestingly, the official World Cup poster features the great Lev Yashin, the only goalkeeper to win the Ballon d’Or (1963), at full stretch with the ball (world) perched in the palm of his outstretched hand. There is humour and confidence in the use of an image cast in classic Soviet style, the picture both bold and simple, made so historically to get across a message of hope and positivity to a largely illiterate audience.

Yashin represented the best of Russian football at a time when the Soviet Union was thinking big, challenging the hegemony of the United States in the space race and in military ambition. The landscape may have changed but not Russia’s idea of itself as a significant force with a role to play on the global stage.

That grandiose self image has its roots in orthodox religious doctrine and is not so very different from the position of some Americans that theirs was the country chosen by God to do the Lord’s bidding in the new world and 
maintain order in his name. Russia saw itself as the last defender of the old world after 15th century Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, with the Tsars legitimised by divine order.

Big ideas like that have a way of hanging around. More than 500 years on, Russia, or at least parts of it, cling to the old order, believing they are the only country mandated to rule. Vladimir Putin and the state apparatus manipulates this mood to suit. Which brings us back to 
the footy.

At least the sun is forecast to shine. Few capitals of this magnitude suffer so badly under cloud, and a grey top and drizzle does nothing for the concrete monoliths that characterise the worst of post-war Soviet architecture. Something about the way moisture scars the monochrome block is too suggestive of the dystopian misery with which we in the west readily associate this part of the world.

If this World Cup is about impression management, Putin might have thrown a few quid at the airport to the north west of Moscow and its immediate surroundings. Ron Dennis,
the former owner of F1 team McLaren, would drone on about the importance of airports since for many foreign visitors they are the first thing they see of an alien country. Thankfully, housekeeping anxieties ease at the first sighting of Ikea and KFC. Who’d have thought the creep of global commerce could ever be met by gratitude?

The tournament rolls out in 12 
stadia scattered across a landmass that stretches more than 4,000 miles west to east and 2,500 miles north to south. For better or worse, Russia is opening its doors to the world, starting with the hosts against Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium. For the next month at least Russia really is at the centre of the universe, and not just its own.