People of Russia - the true World Cup winners

Not you? Over it? Bitter? Always too sides to every coin, with no pun intended. Domm Norris looks at what the 2018 World Cup will mean to the people of Russia.

The World Cup may have become doused in acrimony in the wake of the unveiling of the 2018 and 2022 host nations, however as the dust gradually settles the true winners of Russia's success come to light.

Those winners are the nation's people, as the World Cup could well re-establish their love for the domestic game.

Russian football has struggled with a crisis of identity since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The downfall of one of Europe's strongest and most competitive leagues was bound to cause a number of wide reaching issues for the nations that formed from the ashes of the USSR, and for Russia things were no different.

During Joseph Stalin's tenure as leader, he attempted to create a strong sense of patriotism within his people. The impact of the Cold War, and the political secrecy and suspicion that followed, helped to aid Stalin's pursuit of a unified identity as the animosity towards the United States' capitalist agenda created cohesion within the people of the Soviet Union. The feelings toward the United States, and the fear of potential warfare between the two nations, created an 'us against them' mentality, which also spilled into the sentiments toward the capitalist agendas of other western nations. The Soviet idea of patriotism should also be noted as being far less passive in comparison to their western counterparts. Soviet adolescents were immersed within the social and political realm and were active in their expressions of appreciation for their nation. The breakup of the Soviet Union dramatically affected the manner in which Russian football progressed in the following years.


The breakup of a nation's leading sporting league would have a dramatic effect on the make up of any country throughout the world. For Russia, such a league happened to be within football. The Soviet Top League was a competition that was widely adored by the Soviet people, it was a love that would spur it on to become regarded as being on par with Italy and England's top divisions, and be renowned as one of Europe's strongest leagues. However, changes in the Soviet Union meant that fans were forced into witnessing many of the league's most prestigious clubs and players disperse to the newly independent states and their respective football associations, which left a bitter taste in the mouth of many football fans. Such a split served to destroy the identity of the game and left many fans bewildered and disillusioned. Many are still to return, while the next generation are yet to be fully immersed in the sport.


The World Cup may well be able to serve as a unifying force for the Russian people in a manner that political and social ideologies managed to achieve in the past. Football may remain as one of the most popular sports in Russia, but a comparative look at the popularity of the Soviet Top League and the current Russian Premier League show that there is far less of an association between the people and the nation's top flight. The struggles of the Premier League to match the Soviet Top League's popularity can be seen in both competitions’ average attendances - during the 1987 Soviet Top League, the average attendance was around 26,000, while this season's Premier League saw an average of 13,000. Granted the lure of Ukrainian giants Dinamo Kiev, Dnipro and Shakhtar added to the glamour and popularity of the old Soviet Top League, however Russia's top flight also boasts a contingent of strong, competitive sides.


As many have stated, the World Cup in Russia is reliant upon the perception of producing an enduring legacy, not only Russia, but for Eastern European football as a whole. The former Soviet states will be able to witness their 'coming of age', with the World Cup being the expression of removing the strains that have for so long hung over this area of the footballing world. Problems, however, linger in Eastern European football. Problems that are deeply entrenched and will require firm action to eradicate - such as match fixing, hooliganism and racism - but the World Cup offers an opportunity to rectify the situation within Russia, which is at least a start to more widespread change. Throughout the course of Russia's campaign, the nation's bidding committee often stated that such issues were only minor in scale and denied that they were widespread. Such claims are obviously pulling the wool over one's eyes, however the Russian Football Union now has the opportunity the create a footballing culture that remains as passionate, while ensuring that such emotions are utilised in a productive manner - namely in the stands, in support of their team.


The benefit of the World Cup for the average Russian is simple. The improved infrastructure of the nation's highways and hospitality sectors result in travelling becoming less of an arduous inconvenience, while the transformed stadia throughout the host cities will provide fans with a truly memorable experience. The increased accessibility of the sport in terms of spectatorship will result in the Russian league system restoring the links that the Soviet Top League had previously formed with its people. This is one of the key aspects that Russian football prominently lacks.  All too often, there are empty seats at Premier League matches. It may seem a strange concept to expand stadiums while few reach their current capacity on a regular basis. However, the excitement of the World Cup accompanied by an improving national infrastructure could help see an improved level of attendance throughout the league system, but particularly in the Premier League.


The idea of identity has proved to be a hugely important aspect of the progression of football within the Soviet Union, and consequently Russia. The growth of the Premier League has ultimately been hindered by a lack of connection between the people and the clubs since the Soviet Union's demise. The World Cup could well serve to rekindle the emotions towards the nation's historic footballing institutions and help aid the progression of a league that is brimming with potential.

Domm writes regularly for IBWM and if you would like to read more from him please visit the excellent  football ramblings.

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