Like most people with any taste, I like the odd vodka, I love Crime and Punishment, I enjoy Turgenev and Chekhov, and who doesn’t like to listen to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov? Their national anthem’s not bad either. In other words, Russia’s quite a place, give or take the odd poisoning or country takeover. And as this epochal, joyful, brain-churning World Cup roars into the last lap, let’s look back at what some of Fleet Street’s finest were predicting just a few weeks ago for the land of Dostoevsky and Stravinsky.
Ignoring the admirable advice to steer clear of Nazi references, this was the Observer’s Nick Cohen: ‘If you wonder how you would have reacted to Hitler’s 1936 Olympics, look at how you are reacting to Putin’s 2018 World Cup and learn something about yourself and the nature of sport. Russian abuse will be directly in the fans’ line of vision. Our gaze will not be able to shift from it. Blind though we are to everything outside the game, we may not be able to escape politics when it is staring us in the face.’ Not sure it felt like that to the millions watching England on TV, or any of the tattooed giants (and that’s just the women) slinging their beer around the Croydon fan zone.
Here’s Ben Rumsby in the Telegraph reporting a top copper warning that England supporters could be subjected to an ‘extreme level of violence’ at the hands of Russian hooligans. In the Guardian, Patrick Wintour reported the (then) foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, predicting that Vladimir Putin ‘will revel in the World Cup in Russia this summer in the same way that Adolf Hitler did in the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936’.
And on and on. Everyone was going to get beaten up, infected by rabies and attacked with a nerve agent. All nonsense, but the scaremongering kept Europeans away. The South Americans had no such piffle to deal with and look how many turned up. Peruvians in their tens of thousands; Colombia fans in their yellow shirts outnumbered England by ten to one; Uruguay (population three million) had loads, so did Argentina and of course Brazil.
It’s a pity the footballers weren’t always as benign as their fans, and the elimination of all the Latin American teams before the semi-finals is in no small way due to VAR: the cheating Latins knew they couldn’t get away with it any more so had to desist from the kicking, gouging, wrestling, diving and full-hearted GBH that usually marks the way they play.
What England have is a manager and players who have reconnected with the public, who no longer see the national team as a bunch of spoilt, surly rich kids. And how good was that decision by Gareth Southgate to come out and conduct the singing by the England fans after the Sweden game? Not something you could imagine with Sven or Capello.
In another battle of the sporting titans, Wimbledon started off fighting the World Cup, before capitulating in a half-baked way with a lot of nonsense about relaxing the ‘rules’ on mobile phones. If they had any sense, they would have ignored the World Cup and shown absolute faith in their event. Which is now taking on a slightly Back to the Future hue, with those creaking oldies Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Serena dominating the coverage as well as the play.
Serena Williams really is unstoppable: amid everything else she has had to come through — the injuries, childbirth, being sniped at by Maria Sharapova — she also had to endure that stunt of her husband’s when he booked a bunch of billboards to say how much he loved and admired her. They spelled out ‘Greatest Momma Of All Time’. No wonder Serena is the star she is: something as sickly as that would have finished off a lesser player.