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How FIFA World Cup 2018 dispelled fears and transformed hosts Russia

Russian fans celebrate Iury Gazinsky opening goal the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Group A match between Russia and Saudi Arabia at Luzhniki Stadium on June 14, 2018 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
by Alina Matinian, AIPS Young Reporter, Russia
MOSCOW, July 15, 2018 – I remember how sceptical Russia was about the FIFA World Cup even a week before the start of the tournament. The whole concept of the World Cup in Russia for locals was strange due to several issues.

Infrastructure collision

There have been 12 stadiums built or renewed especially for the World Cup, but only half of them are used as home arenas for Russia Premier League clubs. Everyone remembers what has happened in Brazil where stadiums were left to ruin after the World Cup in 2014, and people thought it would be the same in Russia. The Government was fast enough – the Programme of Legacy includes the plan of using new-built infrastructure after 2018.

General view inside the stadium during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group G match between England and Belgium at Kaliningrad Stadium on June 28, 2018 in Kaliningrad, Russia. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

However, the World Cup facilities do not include only stadiums. There are hundreds of football camps that will be used for football schools, new hospitals, airports, hotels, roads and other facilities for living. For example, Kaliningrad has been given a brand new embankment for citizens, Volgograd has new roads instead of trails and Rostov-on-Don now has a big international airport.

National team expectations

Speaking about the sport itself, literally no one in the country believed in the national team. Friendlies before the World Cup were a complete disaster. The coach Stanislav Cherchesov had not won for seven matches in a row – the worst result in Russian history. His decision about the final squad was also unclear. For example, he did not call one of the best Russian midfielders Igor Denisov because of personal reasons. But the main point was that Cherchesov even did not want to explain his plan.

“Nobody understands how the national team is playing. Can you describe it in few words?” a Russian journalist asked at the press-conference before the FIFA World Cup.

“You will see on 14th of June,” the coach answered.

“It is not a good answer,” the journalist probed further.

“It is a good answer,” Cherchesov insisted.

Everyone thought Cherchesov was just a selfish man who could not accept his mistakes. However, the first kick-off made everyone change their minds. It happened not because of the result – everyone understood that Saudi Arabia were the weakest team at this tournament – but because the Russian team performed in an well-organized manner. The team turned out to be physically and tactically strong as it had never been before.

Stanislav Cherchesov, Head Coach of Russia talks to the media during a Russia press conference ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup opening match against Saudia Arabia at Luzhniki Stadium on June 13, 2018 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

During the game against Egypt, Yuri Zhirkov neutralized Mohamed Salah for 80 minutes – an amazing performance for a 34-year-old defender. Forward Artem Dzyba, who had been famous for several negative stories, completely changed people’s opinion about him and became a real leader. Defender Ilya Kutepov, who only made the final squad due to Victor Vasin’s injury, became an idol. “Our god is Ilya Kutepov,” that is how people know him now.

By the play-off round, the Russian team had made a big route from the worst and weakest team in Russian history to a team that made Russia proud and united by football for the first time since the historic Euro 2008. This is one of Russia’s biggest FWC achievements.

Political issues

After Euro 2016 in France, Russian fans got a negative description. Foreign fans were asked to be cautious during their stay in Russia and British fans in particular had the idea of a possible third world war. Nevertheless, all of these fears were dispelled in Russia. Russian fans, who were presented on TV screens as hooligans, turned out to be nice and friendly. Nikolskaya Street near the Moscow Kremlin, where all fans where meeting, became a place of pure unity and solidarity.

FIFA World Cup in Russia literally changed people’s attitude towards the Russian national team, country and even political problems. Tough relationship between Russia and western countries did not spoil the party of football. All politicians met here, in Russia with respect and there was no place for conflicts. England manager Gareth Southgate had the best speech on it: “There was a lot said about the relationship between our countries, but when we spoke, we saw the sincerity in that relationship on all levels.”

Follow Alina Matinian on Twitter @aamatinyan
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