KEIR RADNEDGE EXCLUSIVE —- Yelena Isinbayeva has great hopes of the 2018 World Cup, born of far more than her ambassadorial role on behalf of her home of Volvograd, one of the 11 host cities.
At 35 Isinbayeva has risen to the status of a minor royal in Vladimir Putin’s new-age Russian Federation and, like every princess, settling on the appropriate role is a tricky business.
Last year she had hoped to add a further Olympic Games pole vault gold medal to her successes in 2004 and 2008 but then along came Dick Pound, Richard McLaren, the World Anti-Doping Agency and Lord Sebastian Coe’s cleaned-out IAAF. Isinbayeva was designated ‘clean’ to compete in Rio de Janeiro by the world athletics federation but Russian track and field athletes in general were not.
That was that.
Patriotically and personally provoked, Isinbayeva’s reaction did not endear herself to WADA. Hence her embarrassingly brief stint as chair of the supervisory board of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency.
Now along comes world football to provide a platform from which she believes Russia can straighten out international perceptions.
The Confederations Cup warm-up tournament which ended on Sunday was acclaimed a success both at home and abroad.
The football was better than expected and the organisational operation vastly more so. Precisely the point of the exercise.
To be fair, the troubled status of Russia as a World Cup host owed far more to geopolitical political and sporting issues than organisational competence. Progressive Russians might cavil in private about domestic facades but visitors all appeared positively surprised by what they found.
The cities of St Petersburg, Moscow, Sochi and Kazan know about hosting international sports events. Whether less-practised Kaliningrad, Nizhni Novgorod, Rostov-on-Don, Samara, Saransk, Volgograd and Yekaterinburg can pull off the same trick is an open question.
Isinbayeva is relying on them to manage it. She believes in the project.
She told this writer: “We want the World Cup to help present a new image of Russia to the world outside, to people who don’t really know us and what is here and who we are.
“We’re not about bears and vodka, those old stereotypes which I know used to be attached to Russia and Russians.
“We want to show everyone that we have become a progressive country, a huge country with great potential, with so much creativity and modern technology. We want people to come here for the World Cup – as fans came for the Confederations Cup – and be able to see these things for themselves. It’s not just something we are saying.
“We have changed, we are different now.”
From her own career as one of the world’s most successful track and field athletes, Isinbayeva understands the pressures facing Russia’s footballers. Just as she expects Russia the country to rise to the challenge so she expects the same of its football team.
She said: “I think the minimum objective for our team is to qualify from the group. The maximum objective is to go as far as possible. They must approach, with great responsibility and seriousness, their own preparation for the World Cup because they will represent our country and our people.
“I understand from my own experience that it is a big responsibility and a lot of stress, which can often be very difficult to handle. Hopefully, they can work seriously on the areas which need improvement so they can share in the glory next year.”
Russia’s national team faded away in the group stage in the Confederations Cup after an opening win over modest New Zealand. A daunting task lies ahead for coach Stanislav Cherchesov if the footballers are to match Isinbayeva’s assessment of the pace of national change.
She may have to accept that Russia’s World Cup organisation is likely to prove somewhat more successful than their team.