The World Cup is turning out to be an unpredictable beast. Today, all eyes here will be on England, as Harry Kane & Co attempt to make progress to the quarter-finals. Expectations, once rather low, have been raised by some moderately pleasing performances in the group stage – and perhaps just as much by the fact that the “big” teams in England’s half of the draw have been dispatched.
Whatever happens, Gareth Southgate has presented himself and his team well: even if England don’t lift the trophy his reputation as manager has been enhanced. Over on the other side of the draw, Brazil and France are playing the kind of football that may well lead to glory. Russia, meanwhile, have surprised almost everyone by playing with determination and panache to reach the last eight.
The hosts’ successful run has merely been the icing on the cake for the tournament’s real winner, however. For Vladimir Putin, this World Cup has already been a remarkable victory for soft power.
Let’s not forget that in the run-up to the competition many voices were warning of the potential for trouble between hooligan elements. Russia’s notorious “ultras” have a well-earned reputation and were said to be up for taking on all-comers. As it is, they appear to have either stayed at home or changed their ways. Perhaps it’s just a bit too hot for fighting.