The Kremlin is used to being a focal point of world attention.
But this, the draw for the 2018 football World Cup, is unprecedented.
It is extraordinary that a country of Russia’s size and influence has never hosted a World Cup.
But the tournament has been under a shadow – as has Qatar 2022 – since December 2010 when FIFA, football’s world governing body, awarded the two simultaneously.
Remarkably, the double announcement was the only ‘mistake’ FIFA admitted to, despite corruption in the governing body leading to arrests, trials, convictions and the fall of Sepp Blatter’s empire.
While Qatar has faced a stream of criticism, Russia’s tournament has been viewed with suspicion.
And all that was before the doping scandal that poisoned the Winter Olympics in Sochi three years ago.
Russian athletes were banned for the 2016 Rio Olympics and still haven’t been readmitted. Russian football is caught up in doping allegations, part of the McLaren report into alleged ‘state-sponsored’ doping.
When you add the well-documented fears of Russian hooliganism, exacerbated by the infamous Marseille violence in a Euro 2016 match against England, that’s quite a shadow.
But there needs to be a degree of caution here. We have to be mindful that reporting of the issues is unlikely to be favourable, so eye witness accounts are particularly important.
For instance, one of my colleagues visited Russia in June for the Confederations Cup, partly as a devoted fan of the Australia team.
She attended matches in Moscow and St Petersburg and said the organisation was excellent, the Russian volunteers, and the local fans, were friendly and helpful.
FIFA is certainly painting a happy picture, which needs to be put through the ‘FIFA filter’ where sanitisation is often the way.
Russian supporters are expected to purchase over half of the tickets for the 64 matches in 11 cities and 12 stadiums. But hundreds of thousands of fans will visit Russia for the tournament, and not just from the 31 other nations who have made it.
On the field
And that brings us back to the draw. There are quirks to this one.
Russia and Poland are two of the top seeds, which pushed Spain into the second pot. Panama and Iceland – with a population of under 340,000 – will be playing their first World Cups.
Egypt is back in the tournament after a 28-year absence while Peru marks its first appearance in 36 years.
The euphoric scenes on qualification in both countries a reminder of how much this means to the national mood which is of vital importance also to the host government.
Vladimir Putin decided to focus on sport, two of the biggest events around. Sochi 2014 brought the medals they craved before whistle-blowers intervened. Billions of dollars on stadia alone are being spent on the World Cup too.
Putin will expect Russia not to flop in their group and being seeded will help.
But it might come down to the ‘luck of the draw’ which takes place on December 1.
SOURCE: AL JAZEERA NEWS