The 21st Soccer World Cup begins on Thursday with a duel between host country Russia and Saudi Arabia. It is the second global sports event to be organised in four years by Russia, which held the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014.
For Russians, and President Vladimir Putin in particular, the World Cup is an ambitious project that has to enhance the country’s international image at a time when it is in the throes of a political and diplomatic crisis.
Additionally, Putin wants to send a message to his fellow Russians after years of economic crisis. “He wants to restore people’s confidence and pride,” says Aude Merlin, a Russia specialist and lecturer at the Université libre de Belgique (ULB – Free University of Belgium). For that, it will have to be hoped that no scandal mars the big football festival. Four years ago, Canadian Richard McLaren had placed the spotlight, in a report, on a huge doping ring run by the Russian State, saying that even some samples had been tampered with.
On the ground, not too much is to be expected of the Russian squad, which seems anything but inclined to soar from victory to victory in the toughest of international competitions. Russia will be playing against Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay in Group A, clearly the weakest group in the competition.
As is often the case, the historic footballing countries are the main favorites to make it to the final. Neymar’s Brazil has been waiting for a sixth title since 2002 and tops the forecasts, followed by world champion Germany, Spain and France. Lionel Messi’s Argentina, the world vice champion, European champion Portugal, and Belgium are considered outsiders.