Moscow, July 2: The critics will be doing what they always do: criticise with or without a basis. They did their job religiously even after Russia sent former world champions Spain out of the World Cup in a penalty shootout in Moscow on Sunday, July 1, joking that Russian President Vladimir Putin played a part behind his country's victory to reach the quarterfinal.
But they are wrong, massively wrong. And even the media in the US, the country known to be a strong opponent to the Russians, has conceded the fact that Putin did not fix the World Cup which Russia is hosting for the first time ever in the tournament's 88-year history.
"Despite the immediate array of social media jokes claiming the Russian president was responsible for his country's dramatic penalty shootout victory over Spain to reach the quarterfinal on Sunday, it wasn't down to Putin. Instead it was a display of extreme resiliency and courage, sprinkled with a touch of fortune, that gave the host nation's new favorite team a 4-3 triumph from the spot after things ended 1-1 following extra time," USA Today reported.
WC 2018 has given Russia an opportunity to build bridges with the world
This world cup is special for Russia on many counts. At a time when Putin was facing criticism from the international community over him becoming the president of Russia "undemocratically" and over the crises in Syria and Ukraine, the world cup has given the Kremlin a tremendous opportunity to build some crucial bridges with the outer world. Even Putin's biggest critics, the sensible ones, cannot ignore the fact.
Putin has used the platform to engage with world leaders
The world cup in Russia has helped the country and its leadership in many ways. On the political level, Putin has used the platform to engage with other world leaders.
From Saudi Prince Crown Mohammed Bin Salman to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to inviting the leaders of Israel and Palestine - two of the biggest enemies in modern-day history - to also set the stage for the first summit with US President Donald Trump, the Russian leadership has used the limelight which has come with the mega tournament to accomplish some major diplomatic mission.
The other parties also have not refused to be a part of the same since it has also gave them an opportunity to engage with a hard power by resorting to a soft diplomacy.
One after another Nato member is falling in Russia
The tournament is also turning out to be symbolically significant because of the fall of one Nato member to another (Poland, Iceland, Germany, Portugal, Spain already in the list) on the Russian soil and it will be interesting to see if the remaining 'Nato forces' in the tournament can defeat Russia in its den. One of the leading members of the Nato group - the US - haven't qualified for the tournament, besides Italy and the Netherlands. Russia will be taking on Croatia - another Nato member who are playing really well in this tournament -- in the quarterfinal in Sochi on July 7. If Russia, the lowest seeded team of the tournament, can pull off another win there, the Kremlin will be feeling all the more proud and assertive as far as its international reputation is concerned.
No hooliganism, no terror attack: It's one of the best WCs
The world cup has not seen hooliganism as many in the West had predicted and on the contrary, a lot of western teams have been left in doldrums because of their poor performance in the tournament. The home team's dream run, on the contrary, has sent across the message that despite the challenge and difficulties on other fronts, Russia is capable of delivering as a sporting nation.
In fact, the performance of Russia in football has become closely connected with its performance in the diplomatic arena. As long as Russia keeps winning, Putin's vigour towards asserting his country's happy and proud face in the international community will be energetic. The West might envy that but in envy lies the opposition's victory.
Russia as a soft power
The world cup has also asserted Russia as a terrific soft power. Absence of feel-bad incidents despite warnings by the West; the boost in tourism; Moscow's reputation as a friendly city and the clear weather - all have contributed towards brightening Russia's image as a country which is not as devilish as it is perceived often. The world cup, in a way, has raised the 'iron curtain' and ended Russia's 'isolation' in many ways. Diplomatically and personally, it is a victory for Putin.
US rushed Bolton to quickly fix Trump-Putin summit details
The fact that the US sent President Donald Trump's National Security Advisor John Bolton to Russia just when the 'iron is hot' and lay the foundation for the first summit between Washington and Moscow on July 16, a day after the mega event in Russia ends, shows that even the 'enemy state' is eager to bask, even if in a reflected glory.
The decision of the Swedes authorities to back down from a diplomatic boycotting of the tournament after their team advanced to the knock-out stage also neutralised Russia's 'untouchability'.
Raising pension age while WC fever is on
At home, too, the Putin administration pushed the reform to raise of the pension age and since the country is gripped by the football fever, there was not much focus on it. Neither were there talks on Crimea or Russia's dubious human rights record. The free world suddenly extended to the air of Russia and it was all happy and content.
Not an event to boycott
By staging one of the best world cups in the recent years which was also not boycotted by any team (unlike the 1980 Olympics in the former Soviet Union), Russia has made an emphatic statement on its own success as an international player. Putin's parallel effort to make difficult diplomatic quests possible while the tournament is on (like inviting the leaderships of Israel and Palestine together) is also significant.
Donald Trump will be certainly envying his Russian counterpart for making a good use of the opportunity he got. The US, too, has got the hosting rights for the 2026 world cup along with neighbours Canada and Mexico but Trump will no more be in office then and the opportunity will most likely be utilised by his successor to undo whatever he will be doing during his tenure in office.