A day before the World Cup began, it was easier to spot Peruvian or Chinese fans dressed in their national colours in Moscow than Russian supporters, even though China have not qualified. Hardly any Russian flags hang from apartment windows, and few shops or restaurants have adopted World Cup themes. The main evidence that the tournament kicks off today, with Russia meeting Saudi Arabia in the city’s Luzhniki Stadium, is the policemen who have flooded the city.
Many locals have left, renting their apartments to visiting fans. The historian Sergey Bondarenko jokes: “Not since Napoleon’s invasion have so many Muscovites fled Moscow.” The hosts of the previous two World Cups, in South Africa and Brazil, were rather more enthusiastic.
This is partly because many liberal Muscovites are shunning national symbols after the jingoistic frenzy that surrounded Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. But it is also because Russians are dismayed by their dismal national team, the Sbornaya, which stands 70th in the Fifa rankings. They should console themselves: they aren’t alone. Very few teams at this World Cup could match the best European club teams. The tournament isn’t about brilliant football. It’s about the global carnival, and — for the journeymen players who make up most of the 32 teams — a one-off chance to mark history.
Pelé once joked that Russia would win football’s World Cup only when his Brazil won in ice hockey. The Sbornaya haven’t reached the knockout rounds since 1986, when they were a largely Ukrainian-staffed all-Soviet team. But even longtime Sbornaya fans can’t remember a team as poor as today’s. Almost the whole squad, including 38-year-old central defender Sergei Ignashevich, is drawn from the mediocre yet lavishly paid Russian league. No wonder President Vladimir Putin has been distancing himself from the team.
By an amazing stroke of luck, the hosts find themselves in the tournament’s weakest group, with the Saudis, Uruguay and Egypt. Given that home advantage is worth about a goal a game in international football, the Sbornaya ought to win Thursday’s “petrol derby”. The Saudis, currently ranked 67th by Fifa, are winless in ten World Cup games since 1994.
Realising that their better players needed to escape their own poor domestic league, they sent nine to Spanish clubs last winter. However, the plan misfired. Only two played any minutes, and then only in meaningless games. Spain’s language, culture, diet and football baffled them all.
Yet Russia-Saudi Arabia will probably draw a bigger global television audience than the Super Bowl final of American gridiron football. Viewers in Mumbai or Shanghai, used to a weekly diet of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Manchester City, may be aghast. The tournament should improve after the opener, but the first round may still prove the most overwatched sporting event per unit of quality in history.
The problem is that western Europe and southern Latin America remain years ahead of Asian, African and North American football. The rest of the world’s long-expected catch-up hasn’t happened, either in quality or in tactics. The best European clubs — and Germany — play rapid attacking pressing football. Most teams at this World Cup will use a much simpler, duller tactic: a ten-man defensive wall, or “parking the bus” in the phrase of Manchester United’s manager José Mourinho.
And yet World Cups matter to more people than even the best club football. The tournament offers ordinary players a shot at immortality. Siphiwe Tshabalala is an unremarkable South African midfielder who has spent his career in his own domestic league. Fans worldwide will always remember him for just one moment: his sweet top-corner goal in the opening game of the 2010 World Cup against Mexico.
Italy’s Salvatore “Toto” Schillaci and Cameroon’s Roger Milla had moderate club careers, but entered football’s pantheon at World Cups. On the downside, Barbosa, Brazilian goalkeeper from the 1950 tournament, remains unforgotten for his slip-up that handed the World Cup to Uruguay. Now the Russians and Saudis are playing for immortality of one sort or the other.
Simon Kuper will be writing a daily column throughout the 2018 World Cup