The quadrennial soccer World Cup reaches its climax in Moscow on Sunday when Croatia takes on France to determine who will win a tournament that has defied the skeptics on numerous levels.
Prior to the event there were many concerns raised about security, the readiness of Russia’s infrastructure and stadia to accommodate hundreds of thousands of visitors, and the ability of the host team to make a deep run in the tournament.
Four weeks later, all those fears have been allayed and the general consensus is that this has been one of the best World Cups since the first iteration of the competition in Uruguay in 1930.
Russia went out valiantly on penalties against Croatia in the quarter-finals, having vanquished Spain by the same method in the last 16. A host nation initially lacking in any positive expectations whatsoever was happy with that and pride was restored.
Having spent the last two weeks in Russia following the brave but ultimately unsuccessful England team, I can also attest to experiencing a country that was warm and welcoming and truly embraced this global sporting spectacle.
Russia laid on free train rides for fans to travel between the 12 host cities; they waived visa requirements for visitors and allowed free movement under temporary fan IDs for soccer fans; they allowed free use of buses, subways, and trams for fans traveling to stadiums; and there were thousands of super-friendly volunteers in cities, stadiums, and communal areas to help visitors with anything they needed.
My trip encompassed five disparate cities: Moscow, St Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Nizhny Novgorod, and Samara – the latter three of which have only allowed in foreign visitors since 1991.
As such, the Russians are not particularly used to tourists, especially rambunctious soccer fans from England and many other corners of the world. In such an atmosphere, it is no wonder that stereotypical views dominate the outlook of locals and visitors alike in their initial interactions.
Most Russian young people speak at least a little English, and one waitress in Nizhny Novgorod plucked up the courage to ask me and my friends "Do you like our city?" She was genuinely emotional and placed her fist over her heart when we assured her that yes, we loved her city and, in fact, we had loved our experience in Russia in general. She was so surprised and happy.
For England supporters, there was extra trepidation following events in Marseille two years ago during the Euro 2016 tournament, when hundreds of savage and well-organized Russian thugs attacked the English following a game between the two countries in the second-largest city in France.
The episode was compounded when Russian MP and football official Igor Lebedev tweeted "well done lads" and "keep it up" following the violence.
Further pre-publicity in English media prior to the tournament suggested Russian stormtroopers were gearing up for repeat performances on home turf, and consequently many fans stayed away. England fans were outnumbered in stadiums by countries including Panama and Colombia, which is unheard of and was unfortunate. It was only during this week’s semi-final in Moscow against Croatia that England fans really turned up in force.
But none of this scaremongering materialized and, frankly, one look at the Russian police was enough to deter even the bravest of wannabe football hooligans from causing trouble. I befriended one British news journalist who was there pretty much specifically to document any aggro caused by English fans, and he was reduced to writing pieces about the "middle-class World Cup" and supporters’ efforts to secure tickets.
The tournament was played out amid a festival atmosphere that portrayed the best of sport and its ability to bring many and disparate people together under a common cause.
Brand Russia has come out of the tournament well, and President Vladimir Putin will be well pleased with the World Cup experience. Whether the warm glow will continue once it's over is another question. Locals I spoke to certainly noted there had been a totally different atmosphere in the country during the tournament.
And, of course, there are perennial skeptics such as former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, who has lived outside Russia since 2013 and maintains the World Cup is just a front for Putin propaganda and that journalists should have dug a little deeper beneath the surface to uncover the real truth about life in Russia for ordinary citizens.
It was unfortunate that the United States, along with Italy, Holland, and Chile failed to qualify for this year’s tournament. The U.S. and its fans have become fixtures at World Cups over the past decades and qualified for every one since 1986.
There were still lots of U.S. visitors in Russia for the World Cup, though it seemed they were more likely to be called Jose, Rohit, or Wei Yi rather than Chad, Chuck, or Chet.
To boil down the branding to its essence, the World Cup proved that nothing beats authenticity when it comes to communicating your values and that when people actually got together and talked face to face all the pre-publicity about rioting England fans, unfriendly Russians, and austere Soviet-style cityscapes disappeared into the ether.
Roll on the next World Cup, which is in 2022 in… Qatar. Oh my, a whole new set of perceptions ready to be deconstructed. Hopefully. Bring it on!