Russia on a high as World Cup wraps, Putin's problems remain

Despite a national wave of elation from the World Cup that bathed Russia in a rosy light, President Vladimir Putin will face some challenges in extending the post-soccer glow at home and abroad.

Well-organised, festive and friendly, the World Cup has shown off a welcoming and modern Russia in sharp contrast to common biases abroad that cast the country as dour, devious and a bit backward.

Putin is likely to try to leverage that Monday when he holds a summit in Finland with US President Donald Trump, and there have been strong signs the American side will be receptive.

When national security adviser John Bolton was in Moscow last month to arrange the summit, he told Putin he looked forward to "learning how you've handled the World Cup so successfully."

Just minutes after the World Cup final ended with France defeating Croatia, Trump tweeted "congratulations to President Putin and Russia for putting on a truly great World Cup Tournament -- one of the best ever!"

That admiration may not extend far enough to affect the larger questions at issue in the summit, including Russia's annexation of Crimea and involvement in a separatist conflict in Ukraine, allegations that Russia flagrantly meddled in the 2016 US presidential election and Trump's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement, among other troubles.

The summit's prospects were further clouded Friday by the US indictment of 12 alleged Russian military intelligence agents for sophisticated hacking in the 2016 election.

"There is some marginal benefit for Putin to having played host to a successful sporting competition that had a largely positive and apolitical tone ... (but) this does not give Putin any special advantage going into Monday's summit meeting," said Matthew Rojansky, a Russia analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars.

Putin kept a relatively low profile for the tournament, attending only Russia's opener against Saudi Arabia and Sunday's final at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, even skipping the home team's win over Spain in the knockout stage at the same venue.

Putin has seen his ratings fall significantly since the June 15 start of the World Cup. The state-run polling agency Foundation for Public Opinion found that the percentage of Russians who express moderate or strong distrust of Putin rose from 20 percent in the week before the tournament started to 32 percent last week.

The startling rise appears to come as the government pushes a proposal to raise the eligibility age for state pensions from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 63 for women. The proposal was sent to the parliament the day before the World Cup opened in what many believed was a gambit to minimise public dismay.

But "the World Cup wasn't able to deflect the population from the pension reform," the business newspaper Vedomosti wrote pointedly. The Kremlin is worried that the issue could seriously reduce support for pro-government candidates in regional elections this fall, the newspaper reported.

Politics aside, the tournament has been a huge boost for the self-esteem of Russians. State TV broadcasts have devoted substantial time to reporting how foreign fans were impressed with the locals' friendliness and helpfulness.

One broadcast even trilled about visitors' pleasure in travelling "platskartny" — the notoriously claustrophobic, 54-bed dormitory cars on Russian passenger rail routes: "Hundreds of thousands of foreign fans have discovered the romance of Russian trains."

Along with the unambiguous good cheer, the World Cup also benefited from what didn't happen. There weren't any major facility foul-ups and security was diligent but less intimidating than at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

There were almost no protests, though four demonstrators barged onto the field during the final and were quickly hauled away.

The Pussy Riot punk performance group claimed credit; it's the same group whose members were whipped by a paramilitary group in one of the more notorious incidents at the Sochi Olympics.


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World Cup Chat: 'Clinical' France take home Football World Cup in style as 1 NEWS team looks back at highlights of 2018 tournament

After 25 match days, 64 games, 32 teams and 13 different host cities, France have taken out the 2018 Football World Cup, defeating Croatia 4-2 in a thrilling final in Moscow.

Les Bleus lift the trophy for just the second time in their history, while Croatia head home on the back of their best ever result at a World Cup.

Croatian skipper Luka Modric takes the Golden Ball award, while teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe is the young player of the tournament.

England talisman Harry Kane wins the golden boot, having scored the most goals, with Belgium stopper Thibaut Courtois honoured as the tournament's best goalkeeper, taking out the golden glove.

Chris Chang leads TVNZ's football gurus for the last time, looking at today's final, as well as a glance over the tournament as a whole.

Chris Chang leads one last round up of TVNZ's football experts. Source: 1 NEWS


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