Russia prepares to dazzle as Moscow hosts World Cup 2018 draw show
MOSCOW, Russia -- When the lights go down inside the State Kremlin Palace's concert hall on Friday evening, it will signal the start of a show that has been more than 12 months in the planning and holds significance far beyond the announcement of next summer's World Cup fixtures.
Almost seven years to the day since it won the World Cup hosting rights, Russia will be the centre of attention for football supporters across the globe to an extent not yet seen. For most who tune in this will be a first impression, a setting of the tone for next summer, and among those involved there is a palpable sense of responsibility to get things off on the right foot.
One surprise ahead of the ceremony was the announcement that Gary Lineker, the former Tottenham player and now TV presenter in England, will co-host the event. Lineker is a consummate, slick professional but was part of the England bid team that Russia beat to hold the tournament and has been publicly critical of a crisis-hit FIFA via his Twitter account in the past.
Perhaps Russia, as well as football's governing body, have simply sought to own one of the many problems this tournament has faced but it highlights the contradictions behind an event that will be broadcast to more than 200 territories in the world.
During a "behind the scenes of the draw" event at the venue on Wednesday afternoon, Lineker's co-host, Russian football journalist Maria Komandnaya, was asked how she felt about Lineker's seemingly conflicted position. She moved the subject along swiftly, preferring to talk about her colleague's character and his past in the game. Realistically nobody present would have expected anything else; the focus on football, as well as a positive glimpse of the country, is uncompromising and any mis-steps at this stage could be costly.
The draw show, which will be an hour long and is to be hosted by local TV celebrity Ivan Urgant, aims to project Russia as a modern society and celebrate its beauty. Many of its more specific details have been kept under wraps but those performing will have been well drilled: five rehearsals had already been held before Thursday, with a final run-through due later in the day.
Lineker and Komandnaya will be joined by eight draw assistants: Laurent Blanc, Gordon Banks, Cafu, Fabio Cannavaro, Diego Forlan, Diego Maradona, Carles Puyol and the 91-year-old former USSR international Nikita Simonyan. They will look after a group each, their eight bowls standing on the opposite side of the stage to the four pots from which the teams will be drawn. The draw process itself is expected to take around half an hour; among those watching in the 6,000-capacity hall will be 30 of the 32 qualified teams' coach, with around 1,000 media also accredited.
The backdrop will be surreal, and it is no coincidence that Moscow's world-famous Kremlin complex, the official residence of President Vladimir Putin, has been selected to hold Friday's event. It lends an instant sense of place and, especially in today's climate, global significance.
Security has been as high as anyone would expect, but the complex is hardly on lockdown: As the snow came down on Thursday morning, tourist groups were still being led around, generally showing far more interest in the historic walls, towers and cathedrals than the FIFA-fonted trappings. Moscow is a big enough city to absorb an event of this size without too much trouble and it would be a stretch to say locals have been overly preoccupied with the temporary FIFA invasion, either.
They will find far more visitors in their midst six months from now. For the next couple of days, FIFA and the local organising committee are intent on appealing to the widest possible range of people. The charm offensive extended to a buffet dinner for media in the opulent surrounds of the Dom Soyuzov on Thursday night, complete with high-quality musical and cultural acts, although far fewer than the 300 guests who had been catered for at -- presumably -- no little expense turned up.
The hope must be that this does not become a wider trend when the serious business gets underway. All eyes will be on the draw ceremony on Friday and, if a favourable selection of matchups are coupled with a positive but sensitive view of the nation, perhaps Russia's tournament can still take lift-off despite lingering concerns.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.