What now for Russia after the circus leaves town?
The 2018 World Cup finals in Russia are over, but what will the legacy be for its people? Eastern European football writer Eliot Rothwell offers his thoughts.
The week following the World Cup final is a strange no-man’s land. It’s not the World Cup, but it’s not quite not the World Cup. The memories are still raw, the anxieties, the disappointments, the joys still occupying minds. Players, staff, journalists and fans have left town, but the billboards remain and the official merchandise continues to be sold in shops.
Normal life has resumed, but it’s not the normal life of before. It’s a normality forever altered by a month when the world visited Russia and when Russia welcomed the world.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) caresses the trophy next to FIFA president Gianni Infantino (C) during the trophy ceremony at the end of the Russia 2018 World Cup final football match between France and Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium.Eurosport
In Moscow, this week, things have been flat. The city, it seems, is taking a collective deep breath. More of a detox than a hangover, people are humming along slowly, following a month of enjoyable chaos. The main hub of the action, Nikolskaya Ulitsa, the street running off the corner of Red Square, has reverted to its more traditional role as a commercial avenue. The banners, the scarves and the foreign guests have gone, unlikely to ever return. But, for locals, the mental geography of the area has changed.
For those that were there during the World Cup, it will always be the World Cup street, where they drank, danced and sang with new friends, where the supermarket, so unprepared for the first few days of spontaneous joy, bulk ordered crates of beer and stacked them up along the windows.
In each of Russia’s host cities, the World Cup altered local life. New stadia, spruced up central areas, completed parks, vast fan zones and thousands of visitors took over places like Saransk and Volgograd. The eyes of Russian people were opened to parts of the world they had not even considered visiting, to people they had not expected to find commonality with. In Rostov-on-Don, Russia’s southern metropolis, local women found their lives turned upside down by romances with visiting fans.
Brief encounters and minor flings ended in promises of a return and a relationship sustained over WhatsApp, as Svetlana Lomakina wrote in Russian web journal Takie Dela. Far away from the pitch, the World Cup flooded into all parts of Russian life.
For Russians, the summer will not be forgotten. The World Cup was the biggest international event in the lives of many people. For the younger generation, who were born around or after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it was formative experience. It allowed Russians to feel good about themselves, and their country, during the largest single influx of foreign guests in history. It put Russia at the centre of the world’s media cycle with positive tales of everyday life, hospitality and enjoyment. It was their World Cup, and it always will be.
Players celebrate Russia's victory at the end of the Russia 2018 World Cup round of 16 football match between Spain and Russia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on July 1, 2018.Getty Images
Now, with the trophy being hoisted around Paris, thoughts move forward. The summer that nobody wants to end is creeping along towards autumn. The opening fixtures in Russia’s second tier have already been played, the Champions League qualifiers are underway and the Russian Premier League kicks in a couple of weeks. The mental dividing lines between the World Cup as the present and the World Cup as the past are amassing quickly.
Some things, though, remain. Much like England, the Russian national team reconnected with their constituency. Before the tournament, the players were castigated. Chats in bars revealed a common thread of populist thought. The players were spoiled, overpaid, pampered, egotists, people said. Worse, they looked terrible on the field. They seemed certain to end the tournament as a national embarrassment. Yet, it didn’t work out that way. The national team thumped Saudi Arabia and Egypt and then, in probably the most famous match since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, defeated Spain on penalties.
After that, their legacy was sealed. Shirts and scarfs began to proliferate around Russian cities, and the chants of “Ros-si-ya” grew more ubiquitous. When the team arrived back in Moscow, after defeat on penalties to Croatia, a crowd of thousands greeted them at the Fan Fest. The players lined up on the stage, danced around and thanked everybody for their support. In the corner, the surly, moustached Head Coach Stanislav Cherchesov enjoyed the fruits of his work.
He was maligned before the tournament; journalists on the Russia beat were already combing through potential successors. But then, he became a national hero. His nickname, “Stas”, became associated with a song by Russian rock group Leningrad, in which a woman declares to her lover “you’re just the cosmos, Stas”. In the last few days, he promised that in the next tournament, Euro 2020, Russia will do even better.
Russian football fans celebrate after their teams victory in the Russia 2018 World Cup Group A football match between Russia and Egypt, at the Fan Zone in Volgograd on June 19, 2018.Getty Images
Among the officials at Russian leagues and clubs, there is hope that the enthusiasm built around the national team will bleed into domestic football. Often, Russian fans have a complex relationship with their own club sides. Rather than watching a losing team, they prefer to set up in bars and pubs to see Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, or their favourite team in England on television. In smaller cities, especially, clubs struggle to attract fans each weekend, leaving stadia empty and hollow.
Now, after the World Cup, hulking, modern arenas are left in Saransk, Nizhny Novgorod, Sochi and Volgograd — cities without any top-flight football. If there are to be World Cup white elephants, they will be here.
But, so far, things appear reasonably positive. Mordovia, the team representing Saransk, opened up their second tier campaign this week, attracting 25,000 spectators. Nizhny Novgorod has a revamped, rebranded team with the same name as the city and, in Sochi, Boris Rotenberg, one of President Vladimir Putin’s closest friends, gave the city a professional team, moving Dinamo St Petersburg down to the Black Sea coast.
In the coming years, it will become clear if the summer that gave Russians so much can have a positive legacy. As memories rub up against the erosive monotony of everyday life across the country, the past month will be re-evaluated and revised. The enthusiasm around the national team could fade among the trudging slog of the Nations League and the difficulties of qualifying for the next tournament. Around the host cities, people could turn away from their local teams, unable to excite themselves with mid-table football after the thrill of the World Cup.
If it does, if the legacy of the World Cup recedes as the years go by, Russians will hold onto the experience of these past two months, when anything felt possible on and off the pitch. Hopefully, though, there will be more.
Eliot Rothwell on Twitter @EliotRothwell