Russia’s hosting of the 2018 FIFA World Cup has made a mockery of the pre-tournament headlines that said the tournament would be plagued by problems.
Did Russia win the right to host the World Cup fairly? Sepp Blatter said in 2015 there was an agreement to take the World Cup to Eastern Europe well before any voting actually occurred.
And the Russians arguably got off lightly in the ballot’s aftermath given the amount of scrutiny Qatar attracted for their bid to host the 2022 World Cup.
Perhaps there would have been more of a spotlight shone on Russia’s bid had FIFA not decided to award the tournaments in back-to-back votes.
But putting aside the dubious voting process, is it fair to suggest this World Cup has been a raging success?
The football has been spectacular, the stadiums have been full, and the Russians themselves have been warm, welcoming and generous according to those who travelled.
Where have all the hooligans been hiding? What happened to the hostile reception visiting fans were supposed to receive? And why has no one seen a shirtless Vladimir Putin riding horseback through SBS’s Red Square backdrop?
Before the tournament kicked off, Australia’s deputy prime minister Michael McCormack urged Australians to think carefully about their travel plans.
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“If you don’t need to travel to Russia at the moment then think twice, think three times about doing it,” McCormack said.
At the same time, the Australian government updated its travel advice for Russia to warn of the possibility of “anti-Western sentiment”.
Fake news? The reality seems to have been very different.
And even though not everything has gone perfectly – before the World Cup kicked off, several Australian fans reported having their visas being cancelled – it’s safe to say the Russia on show has not been quite the same as the country so regularly maligned in sensational media headlines.
It wouldn’t be the first time the Australian government has grossly underestimated the popularity of football, either.
But should we really have expected anything different?
Russia is clearly a complex nation, but it’s also the nation that gave the world Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, the Bolshoi Theatre and the Moscow Metro.
Russians are a proud people, and the complexity of their political situation aside, they were always going to welcome World Cup visitors with open arms.
Of course it helps that their national team was the surprise package of the tournament.
Could the Russians have come any closer to reaching the semi-finals? Their nerve-shattering penalty shoot-out defeat to Croatia was utterly gripping drama.
They were effectively denied by the width of the woodwork when Luka Modric’s spot-kick bounced hard off Igor Akinfeev’s outstretched hand, only to loop up and in off the post.
The scores would have been level had Akinfeev managed to keep that one out, but as it was Croatia went through 4-3 on penalties when Ivan Rakitic rifled his spot-kick home.
And that was on the back of one of the most dramatic games of the tournament.
Denis Cheryshev will never need to buy a drink in his homeland again after the Villareal midfielder finished the tournament with four goals to his name.
And his spectacular piledriver against Croatia was the pick of the lot, as he smashed home a curling strike to give the host nation an unexpected lead.
Russia then showed real fight to make it 2-2 in extra-time following Domagoj Vida’s scrappy goal, and it was a Brazilian-born player in Mario Fernandes who scored the all-important equaliser.
It’s a shame Fernandes blasted his subsequent spot-kick wide, even if Croatia will make more than worthy semi-finalists.
They’ll take on England, while France will face Belgium, in a couple of cracking semi-final showdowns.
It’s been a fantastic tournament. And for that we owe Russia a debt of gratitude, even if some critics probably wish that wasn’t the case.