Sport Soccer

Monday 23 October 2017

Profound change needed for happy ending to Russian tale

Duncan White

If you want to host a World Cup, you need to have a good story. The narrative of South Africa's journey out of apartheid was bigger than any reservations about their capability to deliver.

Russia had the best story of the 2018 bidders, a story about coming to terms with its own history, a story about the emergence from Communism and the Cold War.

"Twenty-one years ago the Berlin Wall was broken. Today we can break another symbolic wall and open a new era in football together," said Vitaly Mutko, Russia's Fifa executive committee member. This story chafes with the cynicism of grubby Fifa realpolitik but it gives the Russian bid a sense of historical weight.

But it is a story only half told. If Russia is to successfully welcome the football world, there must be profound changes.

When Peter the Great built St Petersburg on the marshy banks of the Neva in the 17th century he envisioned the city as a 'window to the west', a portal to the outside world. Now the world will be on the outside looking in and Russia will have to open its windows wide.

Russia has the money and the appetite to reform its infrastructure, to build rail links, to improve the airports and build new stadiums.

With eight years to go, a lot of work can be done. They can do football too. The Champions League final was hosted in Moscow in 2008 and the domestic league is a growing force.

The real challenge for Russia is cultural. Two decades on from 'perestroika,' there have been huge changes, but the country is not yet ready to welcome the whole world.

The state has begun to tackle the declining population, the problems with alcoholism and drug addiction and the spread of HIV. Many black players have spoken about the abuse they've received in Russian grounds.

Even worse, there has been a series of brutal murders of African students by far-right gangs, especially in St Petersburg, in the last decade.

There is, though, a distinction to be made between being ideologically racist and being racist out of ignorance.

Much, all though by no means all, of the racism in Russia is the latter. Just as with attitudes toward disability and homosexuality, the answer lies in education. The state, so used to exuding paranoia, must learn some compassion. The country needs to shake off its intimidating public face -- embodied by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the ex-KGB man, in his shades -- and push its great traditions of hospitality.

Yesterday morning Russia was on the front pages around the world for being a 'mafia state'.

Organised crime is not going to go away, but with the World Cup as leverage, there must surely be an opportunity for the press to gain some more freedom, and for human rights groups and other non-governmental organisations to exploit the increased attention.

From a fan's point of view, promises have already been made to suspend the expensive visa system for the finals, but bureaucracy must also become less Byzantine.

Russia is only slowly coming around to the idea of customer service. The country must also rid itself of the culture of petty bribery by officials and police officers.

The Winter Olympics, in Sochi in 2014, will be a small scale test for Russia.

There will be even more focus on that competition now that the World Cup has been awarded.

If this story is to conclude with a better Russia, then these changes have to happen.

And the Russians, from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, have always been good at telling stories. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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