It only transcends that when the host nation’s population buys into it, as it did in Germany in 2006, or in South Africa in 2010 or, in parts, in a strife-torn Brazil in 2014. That has not yet happened in Russia, as Cherchesov’s comments alluded to.
Such is the lot of the party host, of course: The guests come for fun, and you are always wondering how much clearing up there will be afterward.
But Russia is too vast and too unwieldy to be expected to react as one, even to an event as vast, and unwieldy, as the modern World Cup. There was a poetic moment during Cherchesov’s news conference, when a Danish journalist asked him if he had a message for the Russian people. “You are Danish,” he said, smiling. “From Denmark? You’re Danish, from Denmark. How could you be expected to know the labyrinths of the Russian soul?”
How Russia — not its government; not Putin; not the Kremlin — will respond to this World Cup is the one question that can only be answered over the next month. It will not celebrate because it has a batch of glimmering new arenas that it scarcely needs, or because the World Cup has been bent to Putin’s will.
It will celebrate, perhaps, because the mood of a World Cup can be infectious. A country used to playing with identity, as the author Peter Pomerantsev has noted, may delight in assuming the visage of a modern, international nation for a month; perhaps that identity has been there all along, awaiting its chance.
It may even celebrate because its team does better than expected, though hope for that is thin on the ground. “All we want is to make the people proud,” Aleksandr Samedov, the midfielder, said Wednesday. A strong performance from Russia would, if past experience is anything to go by, help the tournament’s atmosphere.
It is not easy to predict — all countries defy easy definition, and Russia more than most — but it is crucial. Russia, the Russia of power and Putin, has done what it said it would: It has delivered a World Cup. It is the people of Russia, their role so little discussed in those eight long years, as much as the stars of Brazil and Spain and Germany, that can make it a memorable one.