Skip to main content

Diego Maradona draws Colombia during the Final Draw for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia at the State Kremlin Palace on December 1, 2017 in Moscow, Russia.Shaun Botterill/The Globe and Mail

Per tradition, Friday's draw for the coming World Cup was a show best enjoyed on mescaline.

The closing artistic portion of the extravaganza featured a cornrowed Russian rapper flanked by a twerking wolf, dancing soccer balls and two stunned opera singers.

If the proletariat had known where it would end up 30 years later, the Wall might never have come down.

This was Russia's attempt to put a happy face on what is shaping up as the most unpopular World Cup since Argentina was host. It's a difficult bar to get under. At that 1978 staging, a bloody junta played master of ceremonies and the man in charge of organizing the party was assassinated, apparently because he'd complained about the cost.

Russia won't have that problem. Expenditures, I mean. Having already spent tens of billions on the Olympics, a World Cup will seem like a line item at the end of the bill. (There haven't been any violent deaths. Yet.)

Usually, the draw is the point at which the World Cup begins to take form. It's where the actual excitement starts.

This time around is not normal. Most modern World Cups are potential disasters right up until the moment they start. But in this instance, it is not a question of logistics. It's a matter of whether the event will be dead on the ground.

Russia has a series of problems, almost all of them image-related.

The most imminent is a decision to be issued by the International Olympic Committee this Tuesday on what penalties Russia will face at the Pyeongchang Games for systemic doping. It could be anything from a total ban (unlikely) to a prohibition against playing the Russian anthem (more likely since it would be meaningless, which is in the IOC's punitive wheelhouse.)

Whatever comes of that, we can expect Russia to react poorly to any censure. By the time summer rolls around, the World Cup host may not exactly be in the mood to welcome the world.

There are already a number of alarming etiquette bulletins going around.

FARE, the group formerly known as Football Against Racism in Europe, has warned travelling LGBTQ supporters not to hold hands in public and to be on the lookout in general. It issued the same intelligence to "black and minority ethnic fans."

"Go to the World Cup, but be cautious," FARE's executive director said this week.

What a tourist brochure that would make: "Welcome to Russia! Your odds of being set upon in the streets by an angry mob are quite small. However …"

An executive with Visit Russia had some very specific advice for English fans, some of whom infamously clashed with Russian yobs at the last big footballing spectacle, Euro 2016 in France.

"British fans love to drink a lot. We know that, and I can't guarantee safety if fans are really drunk and offensive," Igor Karzov told the Guardian. "I would recommend to make sure that you don't drink a lot when you're in Russia. It's okay to have a pint before or after the game."

A single pint. That sounds sensible. Also, hallucinatory.

On Friday, all the looming bad vibes and vague threats of bodily harm were briefly buried under a wave of pomp and red-carpet turns. The usual suspects – many of whom have lashed FIFA for its sins – showed up to the Kremlin buffet.

Pele was there, looking bored out of his mind. Diego Maradona, dressed like the greeter at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Monte Carlo, helped with the draw.

Gary Lineker, who not so long ago said that FIFA "makes me sick" and is "nauseating," overcame his rumbly tummy long enough to serve as the event's MC.

The draw process was a series of lottery balls pulled from an array of bowls. The point is ostensibly to give everything an up-and-up feel. The actual result is 20 minutes of utter bafflement.

Lineker was there to inject a few zingers: "Diego has always been good with his hands."

There was another directed at former Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro that was a bit too on the nose – "It's great to have an Italian at the World Cup."

That shot highlighted another problem with this tournament. Too many regular attendees are missing – most notably Italy, the Netherlands and the United States.

Without those three behemoths in the midst and 32 teams of wildly varying quality remaining, it was difficult to provide the first round of match-ups with much pizzazz.

There was no genuine "Group of Death." More like a few "Groups of Some Bodily Harm" (please alert Visit Russia).

Group D, featuring Argentina, Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria, looks the most challenging on paper. Does that excite you? Probably not.

You could pick out only one the-world-will-stop-to-watch match in the first round – Portugal vs. Spain. After that, too much of the draw feels like filler until the knockout rounds.

(One can only imagine how thin this gruel will get once FIFA, in its enormous, tail-eating greed, expands the World Cup to 48 participants in 2026.)

Russia won't care much about competitive balance. Like Sochi, this circus was not designed to delight foreign viewers. It's meant to blanket the ringmaster in reflected glory.

On that level, Russia 2018 is already a failure. The national team is a shambles, the participants are leery and the organizers are telling visitors to buy medical insurance.

How tough is it to get people excited? With only six months until the June kickoff, they're still scrambling to attract advertisers. Between FIFA's corporate toxicity and Russia's reputation for being inhospitable, this could be the first World Cup that is a true TV event. Which is to say, the only place people will be able to bear it is on the couch at home. What's the point of a World Cup if the world takes a pass?

As the draw ended, Lineker passed the baton to a pair of Russian hosts, who traded some excruciating small talk.

"Now it's all about football," one of them said.

I doubt it.

Toronto FC defeated Columbus Crew SC 1-0 Wednesday in Game 2 of the MLS East final, advancing to the Cup final. Striker Jozy Altidore calls his lone goal a “big goal,” which he scored after injuring his ankle.

The Canadian Press

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct