Triumph for football, Russia and Putin

The football World Cup was a glorious event where the splendid play, the welcoming atmosphere and impressive stadiums and organisation smothered lingering uneasiness. Unfortunately, sport and politics do mix, and it seemed wrong that a nation as oppressive and dangerous as Russia should be hosting this premier occasion.

The Olympics and Fifa's World Cup are the two international sporting occasions that capture massive attention around the globe. They are showpieces of sport and inter-country competition on a gigantic scale.

More than 200 nations, more than in the United Nations, are Fifa members. They set off over three years on the road to qualifying for the finals. Television audiences, as the last 32 do battle, are stupendous.

Against this backdrop, hosting rights are a golden propaganda opportunity, particularly in authoritarian countries. No doubt China, with Beijing having already run the Olympics, will put forward its credentials and its money to show off again what it can achieve.

Russia won the rights to the cup in what is widely suspected to be the Fifa way. Plenty of money and hospitality sloshed around in the right places. Extraordinarily, Qatar is next in line in 2022. On any rational measure, a place so small and hot should never have been in the running. Then it is the United States' turn in 2026.

Sports fans could not help but be captured by the drama in Russia - the Ronaldo hat trick against Spain, tiny, plucky Iceland worthy of plenty of hand claps, the previous champion, Germany, failing. The might of Argentina cried off, and England supporters for a while thought the cup was ''coming home'' before it was the team itself that went home short of the final.

Brazil stumbled and ultimately fell short in the likeness of a Neymar ''flop''. The histrionics of some of the stars as they writhed on the ground in faux agony was a sight to behold. Neymar became a joke for the wrong reasons from Bhutan to Bahrain. Russia itself, the lowest-ranked team in the finals ''made it deep'', to the delight of home fans.

Belgium provided class and skill as did the Croats, including the player of the tournament, midfielder Luka Modric. And then came France, which bleu Croatia away and proved worthy champions after a final that had just about everything - including the debatable VAR (video assistant referee). The French are still partying in Paris.

The French team itself was a positive beacon of multiethnic mixing in a time of anti-immigration and rising xenophobia sentiments. Sixteen of the 23 come from recent immigrant families - from the likes of Zaire, Martinique, Cameroon, Morocco, Angola, Congo or Algeria. Star forward Antoine Griezmann is half-Portuguese and half-German.

Fears of hooliganism and racial abuse proved groundless. The hospitality, by almost all accounts, was exemplary. The stadiums were ready on time and Russia put out more than the welcome mat.

Russian President Vladimir Putin must be beaming. An estimated million visitors returned home having seen Russia at its best. So good was it all that many now scoff at negative portrayals of Mr Putin's Russia.

His authoritarian nation, with an appalling and worsening free media and free speech record, made the tournament run on time, so to speak.

What is wrong, therefore, many around the world ask, with strong leadership? What are the benefits of messy democracy compared to strict control and rules? Why not follow the Chinese or Russian models instead of that from the angst-filled West?

Mr Putin's triumph has been followed by his predictable conning of narcissistic United States President Donald Trump, another cause for celebration and more evidence of his power and prestige.

The World Cup, which will be remembered as one of the best yet, was a triumph not just for France but for the other winner, Mr Putin.

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