Large sporting events are often touted as a surefire way to improve an economy by creating jobs, bringing customers to a region, and boosting tax revenue. In reality, the costs often outweigh the benefits, with any economic gains being ephemeral at best. The 2014 Olympics at Sochi is a perfect example. At $51 billion, it left this resort community with better infrastructure, but little else.
But what if the games were not directly about economics but rather the image of the country? A sort of sunken marketing cost to enhance one’s brand. In the case of Sochi, the money was still ill spent. It neither improved Russia’s image abroad nor propelled the city to the status of a global resort destination.
Considering that the Olympics neither positively impacted the economy nor measurably increased Russia’s soft power, it would be reasonable to assume the 2018 World Cup would also go down as a waste of money. Certainly, the built up to the tournament was rife with negative news reports criticizing Russia on everything from corruption to hooliganism. Yet, while the overall economic impact is hard to calculate, by spending $14.2 billion, Russia may have bought itself more goodwill than at any other time since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Geography was a key factor. Unlike the Olympics that took place in a rather small area near the Black Sea, the World Cup was played in eleven cities from Kaliningrad to Yekaterinburg. This effectively forced fans to travel throughout the country, often to cities that are not even on the traditional tourist trail. The result was one of the largest cultural exchanges in recent memory.
The problem with Sochi was that during the Olympics fans were not exposed to Russian culture or the Russian people. They were essentially relegated to the Olympic village to mingle among themselves, like foreign exchange students who never venture outside their hostels. Given the fact that the games took place in the dead of winter, many people simply went to the sporting events and then home.
The opposite has been true of this World Cup. The climate combined with the vast distances between host cities incentivized visitors to take in Russian culture. And while metropolises such as St. Petersburg and Moscow are no stranger to foreigners, the lack of any real tourist attractions in cities such as Yekaterinburg, made the experience unique for all involved. The World Cup became a perfect opportunity for locals and foreigners to engage with one another, and those interactions have been overwhelmingly positive.
In Moscow, a group of Argentinians was worried. Should they go to Rostov-on-Don? They had heard it was a rough town, even dangerous. I told them it wasn’t different from any other small city in Russia; safety wasn’t an issue, but you could die of boredom. Ultimately, they braved the Russian railways and went. But their trepidation was not unique. Foreigners from around the world were hesitant about stepping foot in this country, fueled by reports of bigotry, homophobia, and of course that international bogeyman terrorism.
What they found, however, were safe, clean, and efficient cities, populated by a citizenry eager to help out even given their generally limited command of English. One Icelandic man I met on the train from Nizhny Novgorod couldn’t believe how well organized the games were, “I was generally surprised by the security. I always felt safe. It’s a shame so few people speak English,” he continued, “but the Russians have been amazing.”
I was not surprised that everyone I talked to had a positive experience here. Russians are a serious people, but they are also quite warm and have an almost fanatical sense of duty when it comes to guests. They treated the world’s football fans the same way as they have treated me ever since I first stepped foot in this country in 2016, with kindness and a sometimes overwhelming concern for my well-being. This attitude could be seen on the streets as well in the uncountable number of volunteers, who gave up their free time to make the games a success. It was an entire country working together.
The Western media, however, has primarily focused on whether the World Cup will help cement Putin’s power. Speculation has been that the national team’s fantastic performance would benefit the regime. The truth is nobody in Russia equates football with Putin. The team’s victories are its own.
What does matter is the millions of foreigners who take away a new perspective about Russia and its people, one that often contradicts the Russia portrayed to us time and time again in mainstream media. As it turns out, this isn’t a land of vodka-drinking barbarians hell-bent on world domination, its citizenry either bent over from the oppressive weight of the state or goose-stepping enthusiastically to the marching orders of Putin. As one Mexican living in the U.S. told me, “everything the media said was wrong.”
Of course, this is not to say that Russia doesn’t have its problems. Russian society still struggles with concepts that we now take for granted. Homosexuality is largely considered a disease while migrants are treated with derision. There is a strand of nationalism here that if effectively harnessed could prove dangerous (although the same could be said about most of Europe at the moment). But what is so lacking in media reports about this country is nuance. Not every Russian is a bigot, and even those who do not have an open mind generally come from a place of ignorance rather than hatred.
The Cup is probably not a turning point for Russia on the international stage, but it may be the first step in revitalizing this country’s image. It is not an exaggeration to state that millions have come to Russia and learned that its people are not all that different from anyone else. 2018 may finally be the year we finally recognize, in the words of Sting, that “Russians love their children too.”