Russia World Cup 2018: Another score for powerful Putin?

Russia's sports minister likened the geopolitical impact of Russia hosting the 2018 World Cup to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.

Alexei Nikolsky/RIA-Novosti/AFP/Newscom
In this Nov. 30 photo, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is shown during an interview recording with the CNN host Larry King (unseen) in Moscow. Mr. Putin explained Russia's hopes, and slammed the allegations of corruption – against Britain as well as Russia – that marred the hard-fought battle to win its bid to host the 2018 World Cup.

There was mass exultation in Moscow late Thursday after news broke that Russia has won its bid to host the 2018 World Cup, the first time an eastern European country has ever achieved that honor.

"We go to new lands," Sepp Blatter, president of soccer's governing world body, FIFA, declared as he announced the cliffhanger decision by the organization's 22-member executive committee in Zurich.

For Russians, who love soccer, it looks like much more than a smart marketing decision by FIFA, which aims to expand beyond its traditional turf. Many immediately saw it as yet another indication that their former communist country has come in from the cold and finally gained acceptance as an important member of the European community.

"It is a huge victory for Russia and a big event for our soccer," says Vladimir Konstantinov, soccer expert with the popular Moscow daily Sport Express. "I hope in eight years' time we'll have a revolutionary new infrastructure for soccer, which we do not have now. This will give an impulse to the economic development of the country, development of transport, service. I have been to several soccer championships and it was always a colossal holiday for the people."

Russia's sports minister likened the geopolitical impact of the win – which saw Russia defeat competition from Britain, Spain, and the Netherlands – to a reenactment of the tearing down of the Iron Curtain.

"Twenty-one years ago the Berlin Wall was broken," declared a triumphant Vitaly Mutko after the announcement. "Today we can break another symbolic wall and open a new era in football together ... Russia represents new horizons for FIFA, millions of new hearts and minds and a great legacy after the World Cup, great new stadiums, and millions of boys and girls embracing the game."

President Dmitry Medvedev tweeted his joy: "Hurrah! Victory! We’re going to host the 2018 World Cup! Now we need to get properly ready to stage the tournament and, of course, to perform honorably," he said on his official Twitter page.

Qatar also won the right to hold the 2022 World Cup after defeating beating out the US, Australia, Japan, and South Korea.

Most Russians will probably give credit to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who directed lobbying efforts from Moscow and immediately announced that he would fly to Zurich Thursday night to celebrate Russia's win.

Three years ago, then-President Putin personally lobbied for and won the right for Russia to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Speaking on CNN's Larry King Live Wednesday, Mr. Putin explained Russia's hopes, and slammed the allegations of corruption – against Britain as well as Russia – that marred the hard-fought battle to win the World Cup honor.

"FIFA's philosophy involves promoting international soccer and extending its global reach," Putin said. "Eastern Europe has never hosted a World Cup, which is why Russia is a natural contender.... We have a problem, however. Mud has been thrown at FIFA members lately during this bidding race. Attempts have been made to discredit them in ways I think they really did not deserve."

Russia, which currently lacks facilities to hold the World Cup, is widely viewed as Europe’s largest emerging soccer market. Plans call for World Cup matches to be held in 13 Russian cities, and Putin has pledged visa-free entry to Russia for all foreign ticket-holders. The Russian government says it will invest almost $4 billion in upgrading infrastructure and building new stadiums.

Russian experts say the FIFA decision clearly displays indifference on the part of Europeans to this week's mass release of US diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks, some of which portray Russia in unflattering terms, as a country where democracy has died and which is "a virtual mafia state."

One cable, a report to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice released Thursday, describes Putin as a "secret billionaire" who amassed his fortune illegally while in power and is now "nervously seeking to secure his future immunity from potential law enforcement investigations into his alleged illicit proceeds."

Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist for the Moscow business daily Kommersant, says the Kremlin will see the FIFA decision as a major milestone in its efforts to overcome negative images of Russia.

"This is clear evidence that people no longer regard Russia as a hotbed of tension or a mafia state, no matter what you read in WikiLeaks," he says. "Whether people like it or not, the perception of Russia is changing."

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