“That is the main consideration for the Kremlin: The ability to handle an international event here is almost like winning a small war,” Mr. Pavlovsky said. “For the Kremlin group, scale is very important. The greater the scale of an event, the more powerful the authorities seem to be.”
There is also, inevitably, a bread and circus factor.
The tournament will distract, at least temporarily, ordinary Russians, who have suffered economically in recent years and face a bleak future. It will also line the pockets of
well-connected tycoons who milk government infrastructure projects. The cost of the games, spread over 11 cities with new or refurbished stadiums, roads and other infrastructure, mushroomed from an initial estimate of around $640 million to some $11 billion.
“He needs to feed his court, otherwise they will be hungry and might eat him one day,” Mr. Pavlovsky said.
Finally, it cannot be ignored that Mr. Putin loves sports. He learned to play hockey after becoming president, and has been photographed regularly swimming or, more infamously, riding horseback bare-chested. Holding the tournament will promote sports and fitness among all Russians, he has said, and perhaps foster more promising soccer teams.
Even the president admits that Russia is not a global soccer power. The current national team is considered particularly bad, coming 70th in the FIFA rankings. No country holding the World Cup has ever ranked so low.
Mr. Putin is trying to appear philosophical about it. Asked recently who might win, he responded, “the organizers.”