The 21st edition of football’s biggest showpiece – the FIFA World Cup – was held in Russia between June 14 and July 15, 2018. In spite of the many reservations, threats and negativity, the tournament can easily go down as one of the best ever, with its football and organisation.
From the beautiful ladies, the scary language and the never foretold accommodating citizens; Russia turned out to be the hated damsel who lives down the estate, never portrayed in good light nor displayed in kind weather, until you get into her.
Russia, the biggest country in Europe – I mean in the world – have grown to a figure many love to hate. An arrogant and most especially racist perception of the people, led by the famous number one citizen Vladimir Putin has had many wondering just how much of a success this tournament can be. I was there, and I think it was successful.
As I make the long journey back to Nigeria, I try to pen down these thoughts of mine on why Russia’s unexpected charm, magnetized by the citizens’ show of love, friendliness and openness even in competitiveness left virtually no one that visited the country for the World Cup with a single iota of regret.
One guy helped me locate a Hotel yesterday, took me all the way there, almost ten minutes trek, in the end, asked me to return a favour.
"Feel free," I said.
"Please give me a selfie," he responded.
— Fisayo Dairo (@FisayoDairo) July 8, 2018
It is quite debatable, but from a footballing point of view, 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia could easily pass for one of the best editions of the Mundial ever held. The competition witnessed a high class drama, fairly balanced level of competition, zero regard for the big names, loads of goals and VAR to the World.
While opining that this tournament, in his own book is the best World Cup ever (however patronizing that may sound), FIFA President Gianni Infantino highlighted two important points to buttress his opinion.
(i) Only one match ended goalless in the 64-match tournament. That, I believe is incredible. The game being the final group C game involving a second string France side – the eventual winners having already earned top spot in Group C – against Denmark who only needed a point to seal qualification.
(ii) There was no red card issued for violent conduct throughout the knockout stage. As irrelevant as this might sound, Mr Infantino argued that this might not be unconnected with the fact that players went with the consciousness of the Video Assistant Referee, therefore putting their conduct on and off the ball in constant check.
The tournament was given a befitting finale with the six goals thriller between France and Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, the Russian capital city on Sunday night. No sooner had the centre referee Nestor Pitana from Argentina blew his final than it rained on us; myself and the gorgeous Croatian president Kolanda Grabar-Kintovic inclusive. Perhaps, a mark of the heavens’ approval of a great tournament in all respect.
Due to the excessive winter in Russia, most of the playing surfaces are usually synthetic. In fact, the 2008 Champions League final, played at the Luzhniki Stadium between Manchester United and Chelsea was the first ever final to be played on artificial surface.
However, FIFA would not endanger its main actors – the players – in its flagship competition so Russia already put the facilities for natural grasses in place even before the Confederation Cup last year. They were set ever since.
From the 81,000 capacity Luzhniki Stadium to the ultra modern St Petersburg Stadium and with the joy of the mundial shared in historical cities like Sochi, Kaliningrad and Nizhny Novgorod, Russia was ready to deliver and that they did.
Volunteers were stationed in strategic places across the country. FIFA World Cup information desk was visible at Airports, train stations, bus stations, parks and stadiums with charming volunteers helping to ease everyone’s movements.
Transportation was made easy by FIFA through the Local Organising Committee who gave members of the Accredited media free transportation access everyday through the Metro train stations and buses while fans with the FAN ID have free movements on Match days.
Every other process was diligently followed with a high level of decorum. Events held at appropriate scheduled times, without exceeding the allotted times too. Indeed the sense of decorum was reflected on the field of play in the players’ conduct during matches.
After receiving several threats from international terrorist organisations, security, as expected was beefed up and that could easily be felt in the meticulous way with which stewards and security agents ensure proper screening almost every where you go.
Every individual was properly searched with the aid of sophisticated technology at train stations, airports and stadiums to detect and forestall any threat to lives and property. These helped in recording a hitch-free tournament.
Epitomised by the beautiful smiles from the thousands of lovely volunteers at the tournament, the locals showed love to their visitors. For a country with well documented cases of racism, Russians were far too kind in providing help and warmth to millions of people visiting their country for the first time, like myself.
FIFA General Secretary Fatma Samoura‘s statement to the volunteers during their ‘Thank You Ceremony’ that they have helped in changing people’s perception about Russia was one of the truest words said during the tournament. A whole lot of misconception and prejudiced views about Russia and Russians were corrected in the hearts of many. Left for them to build on it for a glorious future.
Maria Sharapova is just a regular kind here.
If you know you know.
— Calvin 'Emeka Onwuka (@CalvinEmeka) June 28, 2018
The fact that no single documented case of racism was reported is a plus to the image of the country. Also, from the doping angle, it was good to hear that none of the samples tested for drugs returned positive. Russia have had troubles with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in recent times and there were insinuations in some quarters that some of the Russian players might be playing under influence. The results are the results.
Great @FIFAWorldCup hosted by @Russia . Big ups to them for accommodating foreigners.
I look forward to returning to MOSCOW, ST. PETERSBURG, SAMARA, VOLGOGRAD, KALININGRAD, SOCCHI, ROSTOV ON-DON, etc. My best stay was in St. Petersburg. #Russia2018
— Tony Ademodi(Tee-A) (@TeeA13) July 17, 2018
The Issues – VAR
There is never a successful outing without at least one or two issues. It happened that the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) was used at the global football fiesta for the first time in a bid to obliterate controversies from the game. But did it? I leave you to answer.
The success percentage of the VAR was undoubtedly very high and it helped in the correction of some decisions which nations might have mourned for decades but it also had its controversial moments, such like in the grand finale on Sunday.
The good certainly outweighs the bad, and that in itself is a positive. The larger benefit is that, for any Federations or leagues that have nursed the idea of employing the VAR imminently, they now know what it absolutely entails and what to expect because the phenomenon is here to stay.
Russia will never be the same again!!! In fairness, they have hosted some big events in recent times, one of which was the Sochi Winter Olympics but the spotlight brought by the hosting of this summer’s FIFA World Cup and the amount of immigrants that will emerge from same will be staggering.
However, one thing is clear; Russia’s perception will never be the same, in the minds of fans, players and officials who will take reviews such as these, back home. For FIFA, it strengthens hope that the World Cup will always draw out love for itself wherever the beautiful round leather game is staged – be it in the corners of the sea or the depths of hell.