With World Cup draw complete, hard work starts for 32 teams, hosts Russia
MOSCOW -- Even within the surrounds of his official residence, it still prompted a double take to see Vladimir Putin take the stage ahead of the World Cup draw.
The Russian president walked out alongside Gianni Infantino, his FIFA counterpart, and composed himself before addressing the 6,000-capacity state concert hall. Those inscrutable features are a regular sight on television screens the world over; now here he was in the flesh, holding forth on the culture and traditions of his nation and assuring potential visitors that they will have nothing to worry about when the World Cup gets underway in June.
"They will find Russia is a welcoming, warm country," said Putin. "They will find you can celebrate football with the Russian people; they are waiting just for that."
The speech served as the effective curtain-raising for next summer's showpiece; the build-up will shift through the gears, and there is a palpable sense that the hard work starts now. That goes for the 32 teams and coaches, who can plot their paths to the final, as well as their backroom colleagues charged with simultaneously easing various travel and logistical headaches.
But it also goes for the host country, which has been under the brightest of spotlights during preparations for the tournament. Russia needed the draw to come around. To understand why, one only needed to patrol the "mixed zone" at which the 30 national team coaches present in Moscow gave their post-draw thoughts to the media.
There was a buzz in the air and football was the only topic on anyone's minds, with all nationalities happy to expand upon their hopes and expectations for the challenge ahead. In one corner, Iceland manager Heimir Hallgrimsson was unable to conceal his excitement at the prospect of a World Cup debut against twice-winners Argentina, promising his team would warm to their task in the manner that has bloodied so many noses before; 20 metres away the Panama coach, Hernan Dario Silva, was relishing the prospect of a Group G meeting with England.
"It's a high level for Panama and we have to get a lot better, but that's why we've come, isn't it? To play against the big names," said Silva, a World Cup veteran who, by dazzling coincidence, managed his native Colombia against England at the 1998 tournament. He has seen it all before but his eyes sparkled. half a year must still pass before the action begins in earnest, but at least the talking has some genuine focus, some incentive.
Earlier on Friday, a considerably longer instance of talking had underlined the hurdles Russia must still clear. Addressing media for a full hour just yards from where the draw would take place, deputy prime minister Vitaly Mutko staunchly defended the state of the country's sporting landscape, which has been tainted by allegations that Russian athletes were part of a state-sponsored anti-doping programme.
"I'm happy to go to any court, to any disciplinary committee, to anyone," said Mutko. "And I'll be happy to talk about how there has never been and will never be any state programmes related to doping in this country."
The allegations have also touched Russia's 2014 World Cup squad, which is being investigated by FIFA. No outcome has been forthcoming but, regardless of the reality, stories of this nature add to the sense of distrust and unease around external perceptions of the country. Throw in a litany of racism scandals, fears over homophobia and the appalling violence that took place in Marseille during Euro 2016 and the broader climate has been marked by a lack of enthusiasm for any major tournament to be held on this territory.
At a different time, there would surely be more focus on the fact that Russia has a proud football heritage, both in its present-day guise and as the USSR's largest constituent part before 1992. Putin has never suggested he has encyclopedic knowledge of the sport but knew what he was doing in bringing up the heroics of Lev Yashin, Rinat Dasayev and Nikita Simonyan in that opening address.
All three were legends of the Soviet game and 91-year-old Simonyan was present in Moscow as one of the draw assistants. If the present poses tricky questions, then there is, at least, a genuine history to invoke; Putin also threw things forward, stating his belief that the World Cup will "be a powerful impetus in developing football in the Russian regions, as well as the globe."
It might help that an unremarkable Russia side, who will open the tournament against Saudi Arabia and then face Egypt before closing Group A against Uruguay, have been given a quartet out of which they should claw their way. Granted, those opponents would make an early exit even harder to swallow, but a positive result in that first game could create the groundswell of national fervour that has been lacking.
There will remain a nagging sense that all of this is a sticking plaster; that Russia's problems are too deep set, or at least long-term, to be addressed to any great degree by a football competition. But if sport and its enjoyment can work as a catalyst for change, then Friday night's event may have been a useful enough start.
"The final draw ceremony is a matter of chance," said Putin. "The best national team will not be defined by that chance."
With football conversation rising above the external noise, Friday might go down as a day on which Russia's World Cup benefited from its own bit of good fortune.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.