World Cup: Russia winning on and off the pitch
Host nation embracing soccer’s ultimate showcase
MOSCOW — Germany, Argentina, Spain and Portugal are history. Ronaldo, Messi and Mohamed Salah joined the star-studded exodus.
No matter who plays in the final, Russia has already won this World Cup.
The streets and subways burst with Muscovites howling "Ros-si-ya, Ros-si-ya" after the nation's stunning penalty-kick triumph over 2010 world champion Spain.
They are out of their minds, delirious that their side qualified for the quarter-finals. Most Russians were delighted just to have the World Cup in their country. They hoped to create a good impression for the world.
Despite the public outcry directed at FIFA for granting the games to Russia — given the country's abysmal human rights record, racism and homophobic laws — the tournament has been sensational, both on and off the pitch.
In Nizhny Novgorod, one of 10 host cities across the country, the promenade route towards the FIFA Fan Zone bustles with soccer fans, including hundreds of thousands of international visitors navigating Russia for the first time. Stunning cathedrals with golden caps overlook open cafes, restaurants, historic monuments, military artifacts and a 15th-century Kremlin.
The town is in its full glory. Chants, songs and the blare of horns rattle out from hoards of fans bearing their teams colours.
Russia is embracing this glorious moment.
It's also a target. Barriers with massive trucks have been set up to prevent the types of vehicular attacks we've seen around the world. Teams of police eye the crowds. Both are a welcome sight, given what could happen without them.
But the massive security efforts are not what you notice first — or what you'll remember when you look back on this World Cup years from now.
'Come to Russia'
Local business man Alex Vasilev blurts out, "Come to Russia! Come to Russia! Forget all this you hear on CNN or Fox News. You can see for yourself Russia is a beautiful, friendly country. We are a warm people! Drink to this!"
He says he is so proud to have his country, his city, host the World Cup.
"We love getting the chance to meet all you foreigners and create international friendships, this will be our legacy. You will see, we will do anything for you."
At this, he raises his glass of vodka again and makes a toast with his friends.
He is aware of the scathing media reports about his country, but when asked about them he shrugs his shoulders and says, "great people, great country, bad government."
The same scene is playing out across the motherland, just as FIFA — like the International Olympic Committee four years ago — knew it would. At any major sporting event, once the whistle blows, the criticism is sidelined by the action on the field.
The Russian government played this hand by announcing days before the opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia that it was planning to raise the pension age from 55 to 63 for women and from 60 to 65 for men. The nation was stunned. And under new anti-protest laws, they were silenced.
Then the games began. And the only thing people here are talking about is football.
It started with a 5-0 bang for Russia. After the hosts' second victory — 3-0 over Egypt — eyebrows were raised about the doping program implemented before the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. In the Academy Award winning documentary Icarus, Grigory Rodchenkov, the head of the Russian anti-doping laboratory at the time, admitted that all athletes, including soccer players, were using banned substances.
The program, which was designed to help the home country top the medal standings, led to Russia being banned from the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang.
Russian head coach Stanislav Cherchesov huffed at the German media for bringing up the subject and gruffly bellowed, "We are here to talk about the game. We have done our homework. We know their weaknesses."
No magic potion
There was no magic potion that could help a team like Russia (70th in the most recent world rankings) conquer a team like Spain (10th) in the Round of 16 over the weekend. But the Spaniards' dismal attacking against a bunkered defence allowed Russia to pull off the upset. And their man of the match, goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, emerged from dope testing with a clean result.
"We have a saying in Russia," Cherchesov said earlier in the tournament, "anyone can be a God if he tries."
Akinfeev is now that hero.
"I am not the man of the match," Akinfeev grumbled, "the team and the Russian fans are the man of the match."
The 12th man was certainly on their side as floods of Russians spilled out of bars and homes celebrating the victory.
The thunder of Ros-si-ya still dominates the airways.
They have so much to celebrate.
The sporting facilities are gorgeous: first-class, state-of-the-art designs. Saint Petersburg Stadium looks like an alien space ship, aglow with the colours of a rainbow through the night as if ready for take off.
The transit lines, too, are efficient, making it easy for tourists to get around despite the Cyrillic alphabet. For the first time ever, anyone with a ticket can travel for free throughout Russia to matches.
"All we heard back home was don't go to Russia! Are you crazy? It's so dangerous," says American Gail Fowler, who brought her two sons to the World Cup. "It is the opposite. People have been so nice and helpful. It's very safe. Much safer than when we were in Brazil and South Africa for the World Cup."
Brazil was a Samba frenzy, especially in Rio, where locals looking to make some money sold Caipirinhas and beer openly on the beaches. Thievery was also a problem.
In South Africa, the Bafana Bafana nation created a colourful and rhythmic setting, with safari excursions during the day and vuvuzelas providing a soundtrack into the night. But there was a lawless shadow side brought on by armed robberies, labour strife and social unrest that kept fans on their toes.
Russia is different.
"It is very well organized," said stunned German coach, Joachim Low, after the Die Mannschaft was eliminated in the group stage.
The matches have sizzled with exciting attacking football and a record …. goals and counting, including a 6-1 mauling of Panama by England.
Drama, athleticism rule World Cup
For the most part, the World Cup has never been as dramatic or as athletic.
In the old days, the third match of the opening round was played at different times and teams were able to manipulate the scores. Here, it wasn't until the final whistle that Mexico discovered they had survived elimination despite losing 3-0 to Sweden. Concurrently, South Korea players fell to their knees in tears upon learning their 2-0 trouncing of Germany was not enough to get them through.
Today's global audience — FIFA estimates that 2.3 billion people will tune into this World Cup — has seen the game evolve.
Technology has given us pinpoint camera work — detailing every tackle, body slam and dexterous ball control, not to mention the dives and flops prevalent in the game — making us feel like we are now part of the action.
The introduction of VAR (Video Assistant Referee) has also ramped up the drama, with the justice committee able to rewind and review bad behaviour — most notably that of Brazilian striker Neymar, who upon review was denied a penalty after collapsing against Costa Rica without a nick.
It has been a riveting affair that only promises to get better.
With so many favourites already eliminated, it's anyone's guess which team will lift the trophy.
So far though, there is no doubt that the biggest winner is Russia.
Carrie Serwetnyk, the first female inductee to the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame, is the director of Equal Play, a non-profit group working for girls on and off the field. She is also the director of Free Kick Soccer Leagues. She has attended eight men's World Cups since Italia 1990.