Russia seek to shine in new light

Russia seek to shine in new light

A man juggles with a ball in front of the St Basil's Cathedral on the Red Square in Moscow ahead of the World Cup. AFP

From the tree-lined grand boulevards to its ornate underground train stations, to the monolithic-looking suburbs, Moscow is shining and Muscovites are at the forefront of a quest to show Russia "in a new light."

They are eager to showcase their breathtakingly beautiful city to the world, befittingly enough, through football's quadrennial showpiece.

For some, the 2018 FIFA World Cup, starting Thursday, is President Vladimir Putin's equivalent of China's 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. And the hosts are keen to present their country in a different light, without the Soviet era stereotypes, without the haunting stories of the past, told and retold by her adversaries to define the country, whose map was torn apart by history.

"FIFA World Cup means people from all over the world will converge here. They will stay here and know about Russia and go back with a different image. The perception will change and the spectators will see it in a different light,” a local said, two days before the start of the tournament.

Unfortunately, observers say there has been no PR campaign unlike the one witnessed prior to the Sochi Winter Olympics, what with the local media playing down the World Cup due to the national team's rapid decline in fortunes.

For a city gearing up to host one of the world's biggest sporting events, the initial build-up has been a bit subdued, but it gathered steam as the tournament's dates approached. Thousands of foreign visitors are set to descend on the country for the one-month extravaganza.

Many journalists and photographers from countries, which are not even part of the tournament, are already at work. But that's how it has always been – such is the allure of FIFA World Cup.

The lure is not lost on Russia and even the recent failures of Sbornaya, as the national team is called, have failed to dampen its spirit as far as successfully organising the tournament is concerned. 

As part of the build-up, a light show is organised every day near the famous Red Square, there are football and World Cup-themed hoardings on buildings, a tournament branding is seen in front of Manege museum. The Russian capital has dressed itself in a colourful World Cup look.

Known to house some of the world's costliest hotels, the enigmatic city has opened itself for travellers – the frugal ones included -- from across the world. But the picture turns grim when the focus shifts to the national team's pre-tournament results and prospects.

By chance (or whatever), Russia have been drawn into a group that has been called by many as the weakest in the history of Worlds Cup. While Uruguay are the frontrunners by some distance to top the group, teams such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia give the host nation a chance, but still people here don't seem to be too optimistic of their side shining.

With 12 matches, including the opening and the final on July 15, Moscow leads the host venues. The famous Luzhniki Stadium will host the opening game, as well as round-of-16 matches, one semifinal and the final.

The city's Spartak Stadium will host four group-stage matches and a round-of-16 game.