FIFA World Cup: Rebuilding 'Brand Russia' through football

Off the field, Russia is fighting bigger battles to resurrect an image battered by allegations of racism and hooliganism.

Aleksandr Alaev, the Secretary-General of the Russian Football Union, hoped that the World Cup would help kick-start a revolution.   -  GETTY IMAGES

For Russia, the 2018 World Cup is a double whammy. On the field, great things are not expected from the team as this is probably the weakest squad in the country's history. The signs were there this time last year when it crashed out of the Confederations Cup at home in the opening round. Now, just progressing into the round-of-16 of the World Cup – the bare minimum – will be seen as a success.

Off the field, it is fighting bigger battles to resurrect an image battered by allegations of racism and hooliganism. The World Cup is as much about building 'Brand Russia' as it is about football. And nation's record goal-scorer Aleksandr Kerzhakov reiterated the same on the sidelines of the Gazprom Football for Friendship event here.

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“It is another chance for Russia to prove that we are a hospitable country,” he said. “That Russia is a beautiful country... a multinational and multi-ethnic country. I am sure people will enjoy our hospitality and may even want to come back!”

“About the team, I am sure the players will do their best. Its strength will be in team play rather than in one particular player. The home atmosphere will help. They have a good chance of reaching the next round.”

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In fact, the country as a whole seems to be in dire need of inspiration. There is a distinct lack of young players coming through, with the Russian club system being blamed for much. Many believe that the rule limiting the number of foreigners has led to the local players taking their positions for granted. Of the current crop, only the 22-year-old CSKA Moscow midfielder Aleksandr Golovin looks promising.

“For a country which had two of its clubs win the UEFA Cup (now Europa League) within a gap of four years -- CSKA in 2004-05 and Zenit St. Petersburg in 2007-08 – and witnessed the Andrey Arshavin-inspired side finish a worthy semifinalist at Euro 2008, it is indeed a sorry state.”

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Aleksandr Alaev, the Secretary-General of the Russian Football Union, hoped that the World Cup would help kick-start a revolution.

“It will, of course, influence the future development of football because children will see the atmosphere and how the games are played,” he said. “Maybe in future, they want to be footballers and it will help the inflow of children into our sports schools.”

Alaev also sought to close a lid on the several controversies afflicting the World Cup. “About the negative comments and unpleasant statements, let's not go into those. Let's get united and I am sure all our efforts will lead to the best results.”

The first test will come on Thursday when Russia takes on Saudi Arabia in the opening match at the  Luzhniki Stadium. It is arguably the least exciting of ties to usher in a World Cup but its significance will not be lost on the host.

(The writer is in Moscow at the invitation of Football for Friendship)