The real winner of this World Cup is Vladimir Putin

A few times during Sunday’s World Cup final, the camera panned to the man who had made it all so, Vladimir Putin. The Russian strongman-cum-president-for-life had coveted a World Cup, done whatever it takes to get one, and then delivered a joyous edition of the world’s biggest sporting event.

He was slouched in his seat in the central luxury box, jacket off for once, smiling and chatting to some other dignitary. On either side of him sat French president Emmanuel Macron and FIFA president Gianni Infantino. In that moment, and at a few other points during a fun final, Putin had the rarest of his expressions: happy and contented.

He was practically aglow in the player tunnel before the trophy celebration, as he stood around with all the other important people. And not even the teeming rain could dampen the party, or apparently Putin’s spirits, as France celebrated a second World Cup and Croatia reflected on an unlikely run. (It may have helped that the only umbrella on the stage was held over him.) He glad-handed and he back-slapped, and it all worked out just as he’d hoped it would.

There’s a school of thought that the only good reasons to put on mega-events like the World Cup and the Olympics are for PR purposes and to imbue your city or nation with legitimacy and credibility. In the planet’s unceasing geopolitical dance, a successful mega-event can bring a lot of credit and cache.

World Cups very seldom make money. Rare is the edition, in fact, that doesn’t lose considerable amounts of money for the host country and prove a heavy burden on its economy. And the infrastructure benefits are negligible, if not a simply a net negative. Mostly, white elephant stadiums are left behind.

Much of the reason, in fact, that the United States, Mexico and Canada were awarded a joint-World Cup for 2026 is because it was unlikely to lose money. The bid promised to bring in record revenue for FIFA and might even turn a healthy profit for the three host federations. The infrastructure, meanwhile, is already there, requiring only some light tweaking or modest renovations for some of the many stadiums vying for games.

Vladimir Putin and the vast Russian nation he holds entirely in his grasp were fairly plain about wanting to show their country in a friendly light during this World Cup – and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. No expense was spared, even as untold sums of money were lost to graft and waste. The point wasn’t money. The point was good PR. To show Russia’s good side, to start to buff away all of the bad.

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That was true in 2010, when Russia was awarded this World Cup – over England, controversially, when Russian laptops used for the bid were mysteriously destroyed just as a corruption investigation began – and it’s truer still now. Given the many accusations of Russian meddling in various foreign elections, and with the endless bad press coming out of Ukraine – or the bits of Russia that very recently used to be Ukraine, or Georgia – Russia needed a flawless tournament.

The world was unconvinced. Going into the tournament, the stories of Russian xenophobia and homophobia and racism were many, rightly underscoring an oppressive climate. But none of it has broken through the surface during the tournament. Russia successfully contained its problematic social undercurrents for as long as the world watched. By all accounts, anybody who went to this World Cup had a marvelous time in Russia.

And in that sense, the host country got very good value for money on its investment. For a month, Russia was the center of the world. Not the political cancer, seemingly hell-bent on wrecking the Western alliance or remaking the 21st century world order. Russia was accepted. Maybe loved, even.

Save for some kind of orchestrated disruption during the final, when four uniformed pitch invaders briefly interrupted the game – apparently at the behest of the protest-punk band Pussy Riot, a thorn in the government’s side – and a weirdly long delay before the trophy ceremony, it all went as well as it possibly could have.

Russia looked good. And since Putin is Russia, in the eyes of the world anyway, it all made him look very good.

What’s more, Russia got a great tournament. The home team didn’t embarrass itself, as it was expected to, and even came within a few penalty kicks of a run to the semifinals so improbable you would have been institutionalized for predicting it. There were incredible goals and plenty of upsets, yet not so many as to make it feel like some kind of junior varsity tournament at the end. The big stars all did something, although most of them crashed out early. And if the soccer wasn’t always great, well, it honestly very rarely is in World Cups. On a macro level, it was all very exciting.

Some, namely the obviously invested FOX Sports broadcasters, have called it the best World Cup ever. For those goals and upsets and thrills. How in the world you go about quantifying the goodness of a World Cup is unclear, and it sort of misses the point that every World Cup stands alone, without comparison to the others. (And that’s to say nothing of the absence of most of the stars and big teams at the business end of this tournament.) There have now only been 21 editions of the World Cup. And they’re four years apart, in drastically different environments and circumstances. There’s no sense in comparing.

Yet, more defensibly, this has been a very good one in that it has all been eminently watchable and entertaining. There was nary a complaint, except perhaps for a few teams who were victimized by the Video Assistant Referee, or in some cases the lack thereof. And all of that is an enormous win for Russia.

This World Cup has been a chance to demonstrate civility and competence and culture and control. A good time was had by all in Russia. And no matter the daily realities outside of the mega-event bubble, that image will be lodged into the memory for a long time.

France may have won the World Cup, but Russia – and, by extension, Putin – made real gains in winning over the world.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

World Cup coverage from Yahoo Sports:
France storms through Croatia to win second World Cup title
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