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The eyes of football fans will be firmly focused on Russia tomorrow when the 2018 FIFA World Cup Finals kick off with the hosts taking on our neighbours from across the causeway, Saudi Arabia.
With thousands of supporters arriving and his country under the spotlight for the globe’s biggest sporting spectacle, Vagif Garaev, the ambassador of the Russian Federation in Bahrain, is confident Russia can deliver a tournament that will be remembered for all the right reasons.
He said: “First of all I’d like to offer a warm welcome to all Bahraini nationals in Russia during the World Cup Finals. Football fans from every nation will be made welcome. I do believe that all our guests will enjoy their stay during this major competition.
“I know that people have been landing in Russia over the past few days and many may probably stay longer to tour my country. We have provided visitors with many options and opportunities to watch the games and also to enjoy all that Russia has to offer.”
Vagif, 63, who lives in Budaiya with his wife, Tatiana, was a keen football player during his high school days, and is delighted that families from across the globe will tune in to watch the grand opening ceremony at the national stadium in Moscow starting two hours before the sporting action kicks off at 6pm Bahrain time.
Headlining will be Will Smith and Nicky Jam performing the official song of the tournament, Live It Up. Additionally, the entertainment will also feature dances and performers paying tribute to all aspects of Russian culture and tradition.
In addition to the fun at the Luzhniki Stadium, there will be another concert staged in Moscow’s Red Square where international stars such as Placido Dominguez and Juan Diego Flores will perform.
Russia has spent billions of rubles in advance of the tournament, not just on stadiums, but also on upgrades to airports and transit across the country.
As well as the capital, other hosts cities include Saint Petersburg, Sochi, Ekaterinburg. Saransk, Rostov-on-Don, Kazan and Kaliningrad for the first ever World Cup Finals to be held in Eastern Europe. It will feature 32 national teams and a total of 64 matches will be played in 12 venues with the final on July 15 returning to Moscow.
“The football will not be the only thing entertaining visitors as there are a wide range of programmes set in place around the cities where the matches are being staged, with cultural activities and historical attractions to enjoy,” said Vagif. “I believe after their stay in Russia, whether it’s their first time or not, it will change their points of view about my country. They will fall in love with it.”
It could certainly prove to be a timely image boost. When Russia won its bid to host the planet’s most watched sporting event eight years ago, President Vladimir Putin made clear he intended the tournament to showcase his country at its best.
Recently the country has been getting global attention of a different kind, blamed for meddling in US elections, backing the brutal Syrian regime of Bashar Al Assad, and waging a not-so covert war in eastern Ukraine. In March, the US and European Union expelled more than 100 diplomats over the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK, which the Kremlin denies any involvement in.
Hooligan rampages by the feared ‘ultras’ at Euro 2016 tarnished Russia’s image too, with the country threatened with expulsion from the tournament in France and racism has reared its ugly head since then.
The Russian Football Association was fined by FIFA after sickening chants were directed towards black French players during a friendly between the two nations in March. France’s 3-1 friendly win was played at the Krestovsky Stadium in St Petersburg, one of the venues for this summer’s finals.
However, Vagif is confident measures are firmly in place to tackle unruly behaviour to ensure teams and genuine fans enjoy their stay. “We are staging the World Cup Finals not just to share our love for football and watch competitive play at its finest but also to showcase what Russia is all about,” he said.
“We truly are a friendly nation and while there may be a small number of fans that are hooligans it doesn’t mean that all football fans are like that. It’s sad when a handful ruin it for everyone-else.
“Russian police have already implemented safety precautions. Our guests are very important to us and we want everyone to see how friendly and beautiful our country is. We have partnered with representatives from the Ministry of Interiors from all the countries playing here. They will be working together and stationed around the cities.
“We know everyone in Russia is ready to welcome all foreigners to the country but we also do know that surprises or incidents can happen and, if they do, we will be ready. We are organised and have everyone working together to ensure a friendly and peaceful tournament.
“There are tensions all over the world but when people are seated in the stadium, the main goal isn’t politics or religion, it’s sport. That is what truly unites people.”
Vagif, who will be watching the action in Bahrain with his diplomat buddies and friends from across the Gulf States, is excited that the first match features his country against the kingdom’s neighbours, Saudi Arabia.
“I believe that my Saudi friends that live in Bahrain will be upset with me because in my opinion Russia will win 2-0,” he said. “I’m optimistic about my team.”
He appears to be in the minority though. Only ‘a miracle’ can save Russia from crashing out at the group stage, according to leading Russian sports writer Alexander Sedov. “Seven matches without a win (the worst-ever run in the Russian national team’s modern history under the same coach) and zero victories in 2018,” he said.
Russia are only the third host nation that has failed to win a game in a World Cup year, he also pointed out.
As hosts of the World Cup, Russia qualified for the Finals automatically and at 70th are the lowest ranked team in this year’s tournament, according to the world governing body FIFA.
Vagif dismisses the doom-mongers. “I’m confident Russia will make it through Group A. However, the next game will be difficult as they will face either Spain or Portugal.”
He believes his country, has a better chance against the Portuguese because he thinks the Spanish might go all the way and lift the trophy.
“If they play against Spain then I don’t think we have a chance,” he said. “However, God only knows what will happen,” he added. “We wish our team a lot of success and victories, of course, but for some reason I feel that the Spanish team might win it. Brazil, Argentina and France all have a great chance too.
“Our group also includes Egypt and Uruguay. On paper Uruguay look the strongest but anything is possible. In all honesty, I will be very happy that alongside Russia, one of the Arab countries makes it through to the next stage.”
Vagif, a diplomat of 40 years standing, formerly held the position in Egypt of head of desk in the consular department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, and says during that time he played a few football matches against other embassy teams in diplomatic tournaments.
He went on to become consul general in Aleppo, Syria and senior counsellor in the Department of Middle East and Northern Africa of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was also the consul general in Erbil and in Basra, Iraq.
He holds diplomatic rank of Minister Extraordinary & Plenipotentiary 1st Class and is fluent in Arabic. He was appointed as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Russian Federation to the Kingdom of Bahrain in December, 2014. His wife joined him in 2015 and his son and three granddaughters currently live in UAE.
As football fans around the world count down to the start of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, a prominent Russian TV host has launched a campaign to support the national football team, with a nod to the head coach’s facial hair.
Russian coach Stanislav Cherchesov is renowned for his signature moustache and presenter Ivan Urgant urged viewers to grow their own and post photographs using the hashtag #MoustacheOfHope.
Forgive normally clean-shaven Vagif if tomorrow morning he’s looking a little hairier around the edges.