World Cup plaudits cheer Putin as Russia revels in spotlight

Fans watch the match between Uruguay and Russia on a big screen in Moscow

Vladimir Putin wore a broad smile when the US national security adviser, John Bolton, gave him an extra special compliment on Wednesday. “We are most appreciative of your courtesy and graciousness here and I look forward to learning how you handled the World Cup so successfully, among other things,” Bolton told Putin during a meeting at the Kremlin.

A top US official at the Kremlin complimenting Putin’s World Cup as they arranged a summit with Donald Trump. Was this real life or just the Russian president’s fantasy? Could it have gone any better?

Not really. Russia has hosted the World Cup it wanted and the hectic group stages have passed without major incident. The stadiums have held up, as has the transport infrastructure. Central Moscow has held boozy fan parties with a relaxed police presence and St Petersburg has sparkled. The Russians are cheerful.

Even towns that lacked the proper hotel facilities, such as Saransk, were gripped by the unstoppable enthusiasm of fans from Peru and Colombia. The biggest scandal so far has been MPs and Russian broadsheets arguing over whether Russian women should sleep with foreigners.

It is a case study in effective soft power. For those who may have associated Russia with the Soviet Union or a police state, the World Cup has been a pleasant tour through gleaming cities. It is quite possible that the memories will last a lifetime and create goodwill to offset critical reports about the country’s leadership or rights abuses.

“What you can stop doing is publishing such rubbish about Russia,” one England fan, a lawyer in Moscow, told the Guardian after England’s 6-1 drubbing of Panama in Nizhny Novgorod.

Of course, there are limits as to how far the magic will go. A Russian fan recently posted a video of a frank exchange with police. “When the World Cup is over will I be able to walk around here with a beer?” he asked. “Are you Russian? Then no,” the police officer responds. Everyone laughs, but the exchange has real bite.

Yevgeny Roizman, a maverick politician from Ekaterinburg, said the world was not being given a full picture of what life was like in Russia. But since when was a World Cup a reflection of everyday life, he added. It was a prazdnik, a festival – a moment when a country puts on its best face to welcome the world.

Russians still fondly recall the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, boycotted by much of the west but attended by the rest of the world, when Misha the cartoon bear shed a tear to bid the Games farewell.

This could have been the legacy of the Sochi Olympics of 2014, when even the gaffes such as the malfunctioning fifth ring in the opening ceremony were charming. But the legacy was overshadowed first by the annexation of Crimea and the war in south-east Ukraine, and later by the doping scandal said to affect more than 1,000 Russian athletes. Trump and Putin will meet on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the downing of MH17, a jetliner carrying 298 people over east Ukraine.

The luck of the draw has helped keep politics at bay during the World Cup. Ukraine, the United States, and the Netherlands all failed to qualify, averting the kinds of confrontations that could have led to ugly scenes or boycotts.

But the success is largely due to the immense resources and political will put into holding the tournament. Russia has put its best foot forward, and the effect has been compelling. The country has a unique ability to mobilise for these super-projects. Whether it is a World Cup or a bridge to annexed Crimea, the work gets done.