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With the World Cup party over, Russia faces up to its future

The FC guys answer your tweets about the controversies in the World Cup final, Paul Pogba's performance and where the 2018 World Cup ranks all time.
With the World Cup final looming, ESPN's Charlie Gibson travels around searching for fans from all 32 nations.

MOSCOW -- It hardly caused a ripple in the news cycle when, on Tuesday, football returned to Russia as quickly as it had left.

The second-tier Football National League began its 2018-19 season fewer than 48 hours after the end of the World Cup and, amid a sprawling list of competitors that spans the breadth of the country, one name stuck out in particular.

PFC Sochi had never played an official match before, not in this guise anyway: They came about when Dinamo St. Petersburg moved 1,500 miles south to the Black Sea resort and, from nothing, one of this summer's host cities had a credible team to call its own.

Their curtain raiser, against Spartak Moscow's reserves, took place at the modest Stadion FGUP Yugsport; the plan, once all the World Cup paraphernalia has been moved away, is that they play at the 40,000-capacity Fisht Olympic Stadium that hosted six games at Russia 2018, including Portugal's thrilling 3-3 draw with Spain.

The odds of coming close to filling it to capacity seem extraordinarily long; what has happened, essentially, is that a club backed by oligarch Boris Rotenburg has parachuted itself into an area with no established football culture and set about starting from scratch.

Putting aside the moral issue of uprooting a team, it does mean Sochi gets an attempt at some kind of legacy from the World Cup. That is the challenge for Russia: How does the country ensure that the strides made are more than superficial. Further, have the last five weeks been enough to change the way it perceives itself, on and off the pitch?

On Tuesday, the Novaya Gazeta newspaper ran an online poll that asked: "Do you think Russia has become better after Russia 2018?" By the evening, 85 percent of respondents had voted "No"; even allowing for the fact that the paper is known for its criticism of the Russian government and that its reader demographic may be skewed accordingly, the figure tells a tale.

It feels like "back to normal" now that FIFA's traveling, branded mini-state has rolled out of town. Cities like Samara and Nizhny Novgorod, both closed to foreigners in the past, spent the last month opening up to once-unthinkable numbers of visitors. Locals, who partied with Colombians, Peruvians and Croatians, cross their fingers in the hope that some of the good feeling is allowed to persist.

A FIFA 2018 World Cup flag flies in Moscow's Red Square.
A FIFA 2018 World Cup flag flies in Moscow's Red Square.

Russia put on a marvellous show, and maybe "show" is the operative word. During the tournament, areas around stadia, as well as city centres where Fan Fests took place, were spotless and virtually bereft of litter; homelessness and begging barely registered even though, in many major cities, they are evident outside tournament time.

It corroborated the suspicion that existing issues were swept under the carpet. In Samara, for example, some ramshackle and poorly preserved old buildings were painted or masked with fencing in order to give a more amenable impression. Not that this would be a Russia-specific issue.

There was a note of encouragement when president Vladimir Putin suggested after Sunday's final that supporters with official Fan ID documents would be allowed to return on holiday this year without the need for a new visa.

Putin spoke further of implementing a "comfortable visa regime" in the future. Perhaps whatever means were used to get here, the success of this summer's football carnival has focused the government's minds upon a more open-armed approach. There were few flashpoints between supporters, meaning PR, always important for Putin, was excellent. Therefore, the appetite for it to continue would be understandable.

A more liberal approach to tourism would not cure social ills overnight but would, at least, allow what was a festival of unprecedented cultural exchange not to be wasted. It would also ensure Russia can be scrutinised at close quarters by more people, more often.

The next few weeks might see an uneasy period of calibration in which balance is sought between the permissive attitude of the authorities during the tournament and the way things were before. "Just saw police patrol stop a guy with a bottle of beer on the street. The World Cup is definitely over," one Moscow-based journalist tweeted on Tuesday.

In the meantime, Russia also looks to recalibrate its football landscape. Those new stadia must be put to good use and it would be little surprise, certainly to more cynical onlookers, if efforts were redoubled to ensure they all house relatively stable, successful teams in the foreseeable future. The World Cup knock-on effect might be real enough to sustain it but, if Rio's iconic Maracana can fall into disrepair, nothing is certain.

While PFC Sochi were beginning their assault on the second division, Mordovia Saransk were facing Nizhny Novgorod in their new home ground, which hosted three group-stage games. To the eye, the attendance was far higher than anyone would usually have expected for a midweek match at that level, where games are typically watched by crowds in the low thousands.

Maybe Russia 2018 has reached some of the country's football backwaters and taught them to love the game, although a note of caution can be found elsewhere. On Monday, footage emerged of damage caused to the area around Volgograd Arena by heavy rain, with an embankment giving way outside. The obvious, slightly harsh joke at this point is that Russia's World Cup legacy has been built on foundations of sand.

Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.

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