Russia win in World Cup offers distraction as Putin benefits

Russia's fans celebrate after the round of 16 match between Spain and Russia at the 2018 soccer World Cup at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia, Sunday, July 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

MOSCOW (AP) Russia’s surprise victory over Spain in the World Cup turned Moscow into one giant street party and the Kremlin was eager to join in on the celebration.

The national team is doing unexpectedly well and has reached the quarterfinals after Sunday’s win in a penalty shootout. On top of that, Russia is proving to be a successful and welcoming host.

And with the anticipation of a Russia-U.S. summit the day after the tournament final, President Vladimir Putin is basking in good news. Even protests against a government plan to raise the retirement age were drowned out by the cheers.

Tens of thousands of Russians spilled onto the streets of Moscow on Sunday evening after Russia beat Spain 4-3 on penalties following a 1-1 draw. The fans, many waving or wrapped in Russia’s flag, hugged each other, dove into fountains, climbed on top of streetlamps and shouted at the top of their lungs.

So great was the excitement of Russia beating the 2010 World Cup champions that Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov compared the street celebrations to Moscow marking the defeat over Nazi Germany in World War II.

For a team that had the lowest ranking in the tournament, it was Russia’s highest-profile win in any sports event since the Sochi Olympics were tarnished by medals being stripped from the country for doping.

”As the whole country, Putin watched the match from beginning to end and cheered for our team,” Peskov told reporters Monday. ”He cheered, as all Russians did, with his whole heart.”

With the economy hit by sanctions and Russia-West relations at post-Cold War lows, Sunday’s game was a rare break from bad news out of Russia.

”Russia’s negative rating is high… but here you have an obviously positive event that is quite hard to contest,” said Alexander Baunov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. ”The victory of the national team is a victory for any government of any country whether it’s the Kremlin or not.”

Independent political analyst Masha Lipman said that Russia’s defeat of Spain was much more a victory for ordinary Russians than for the Kremlin.

”Putin didn’t win. It was the national team that won,” Lipman said, adding that spectators and fans shouted the names of key players and the head coach and not Putin.

On social media, some liberally-minded Russians launched into a heated debate on whether one can remain critical of the government yet celebrate the victory of the national team.

Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who just completed yet another stint in jail for holding anti-government protests, was in the camp of those who celebrated.

”Yeeeees,” he tweeted after the match. ”We should call a series of rallies to demand that (Russian goalkeeper Igor) Akinfeev be made Hero of Russia.”

Meanwhile, a U.S. congressional delegation was in St. Petersburg meeting the local governor before high-level discussions in Moscow. Richard Shelby, a Republican senator from Alabama who heads the delegation, said he and his colleagues were hoping to see Putin during the visit, the Russian state news agency Tass reported. Neither the Kremlin nor the U.S. Embassy would comment.

The congressional visit and Putin’s summit with President Donald Trump set for July 16 in Helsinki weren’t related to the World Cup, but they helped boost the overall sense of optimism.

”Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and talk about a thaw, but it is gratifying to see that contacts are in fact intensifying,” Peskov said.

Lipman suggested that officials from some European nations, which had boycotted the opening ceremony, may end up coming to support their teams toward the end of the championship if their teams do well. But that will not magically solve all Russia’s problems on the world stage.

”Naturally, Putin will score some points here, but if we talk about some serious decisions such as on sanctions …. this will not change as a result of the championship,” Lipman said.

When the World Cup is over, Russians, and Putin, may wake up with a headache. Putin’s approval rating has slipped in recent weeks after the Cabinet moved to significantly raise the retirement age – a decision announced on the day when the Russia’s national team trounced Saudi Arabia 5-0 on the World Cup’s opening day.

Even with the tournament in full swing, the pension reform is at the top of everybody’s mind and dominating public discussion, according to Lipman.

”The first reaction (to the pension reform) was softened, but the issue is here to stay,” Lipman said.

Associated Press reporter James Ellingworth contributed to this story.

More AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup