MOSCOW, November 30, 2017 - Christmas trees and a Christmas market have taken over Red Square. GUM is lit up like Disneyland’s Main Street USA. There is also a skating rink but tomorrow, when the World Cup draw is enacted on the other side of the Kremlin walls, the main actors will be skating on thin ice of their own.
Russia was awarded host rights to the 2018 World Cup in the joint ballot which sent 2022 to Qatar. That has proved a blessing in disguise for Russia. Until now.
Thus far almost all the future World Cup attention has been on the Gulf state, on the issues of construction workers’ employment conditions and. anyway, how did it manage to land the biggest prize in world football?
That latter issue remains high-viz this very week courtesy of the FIFAGate trial in New York, where each hearing’s revelations trump the awfulness of the previous day.
Hence Russia has been given virtually a free ride. Apart that is, from doping.
This remains a thorn in the side of Vitaly Mutko as the Deputy Prime Minister and former Sports Minister dances his diplomatic barynya for the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency.
But Mutko has no need of a high-speed folk dance to keep Russian President Vladimir Putin and FIFA president Gianni Infantino happy.
All he has to do, in his dual football roles as head of the national federation and president of the Russia 2018 local organising committee, is to run a secure, spectacular, trouble-free, operationally perfect draw and then World Cup.
Not much to ask.
The dummy run of a Confederations Cup last summer was a solid start. Some snags emerged. The Fan-IDs must be far more readily accessible in host cities. Information about free trains must be available in good time for visitors planning their travel.
To be fair, criticism of the first World Cup in eastern Europe has never veered towards Russia’s organisational capability. It has been geopolitical.
Sometimes from critics with serious issues for which to use the World Cup as a handy vehicle, sometimes from critics who want to generate easy headlines for themselves in their own back yard.
The scheduling coincidence of both tomorrow’s World Cup draw and next seek’s IOC decision on Russian participation in February’s PyeongChang Winter Olympics has played into the hands of Russia’s enemies.
As if FIFA did not have enough with which to contend, long with its own scandal-battered failure to bring on board the A-list sponsors essential both as a signal of restoration of credibility and to help service Infantino’s expansive development spending promises .
The World Cup draw needs to be seen as a seamless exercise in perfection. Anything less and the ice will start cracking ahead of next June’s football extravaganza.