To Russia with Love?

Can the World Cup Conquer Putin’s Russia?

Russia.

The riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

In many respects, the build-up to the first World Cup to be held in the world’s largest nation seems to mirror Churchill’s famous description of a state that has stood toe-to-toe with western powers for most of its existence.

From the hooliganism that marred Euro 2016 to what has already become the most far-reaching doping scandal in sporting history, Russia seems to have veered a long way from the textbook approach to hosting major international events.

And that’s before the geopolitical tampering that Moscow is accused of is taken into account, with its alleged troll armies now reportedly preparing to undermine the cyber security of visiting teams.

But putting the bots and the cheap shots to one side, the challenge for Russia 2018 will be to confound the critics and deliver a compelling, enervating and inspiring tournament on par with other events dogged by controversy but ultimately successful.

So will Russia manage to mimic Brazil and South Africa, both of whose World Cups seemed to teeter close to collapse before triumphantly delivering memorable, ground-breaking tournaments?

Ultimately, and irrespective of the idiosyncrasies of the host nation, the football takes over and that is what continues to attract the commercial support of the world’s biggest brands.

The World Cup is not just about the tournament experience. More than any other sporting event, the Olympics included, it grabs the attention of fans all over the world and holds it tightly in its grasp for an entire month, irrespective of the success or even participation of the majority of nations on the planet.

And remember this is an event that faces many challenges, not least in being the most public face of FIFA, an organisation still coming to terms with its many shortcomings, including what, at best, could be termed a lukewarm response to the IOC’s banning of Russia from the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics.

So, the question really ought not be “what is Russia’s great game”?

It should be “despite it all, how does the World Cup remain the ultimate incarnation of the greatest game?”

Ultimately it is because the World Cup brand is quite possibly the strongest ever created in world sport.

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