"The power of football provides us with a great opportunity for people to see Russia for what it really is and change some of the negative perceptions that they have of us," says Vitaly Mutko, Russia's minister for sport, tourism and youth. Russia is bidding to host the 2018 football World Cup, and invited our football editor, Osasu Obayiuwana, to come and see the progress on the ground.
RUSSIA, THE WORLD'S LARGEST country--with a land mass of over 17 million square kilometres and spanning nine time zones--is a realm of interesting cultural and political contrasts; European yet Asian, it demands to be regarded--and respected--as a major player in the new world order of the 21st century. The oil- and gas-rich nation seeks to break free from the long shadow of its communist past.
Winning the bid to host the football World Cup in 2018, according to Vitaly Mutko, Russia's minister for sport, tourism and youth, is a vital part of their international rebranding campaign.
"People still think we are an undemocratic and corrupt country. They are stereotypes and quite convenient to use against us but are absolutely wrong," he complained to New African. "We want the world to see a new Russia, one that is at peace with the world and its neighbours. As the country of [Alexander] Pushkin and [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky [the world acclaimed poet and writer, respectively], we are not an unknown country."
True as that is, having been, as a part of the defunct Soviet Union, the world's other superpower during the "Cold War" era, Mutko acknowledges a for more must be done to rid themselves of the old "Iron curtain" image.
Whilst Vladimir Putin, Russia's former president and the current prime minister (and still regarded as the real power in Russia) gave a guarantee to FIFA, football's world governing body, that stringent entry requirements will be eased for fans wishing to visit the country during the tournament, making this a practical reality, as I can tell from practical experience, is another matter.
This writer was unable to secure a visa from the Russian embassy in Nigeria for the trip, despite an official invitation from the World Cup Bid's Organising Committee and several frustrating visits to the embassy in Lagos over the course of a month.
The very poor treatment of applicants by the local front door staff, who functioned as the embassy's clerical officer and receptionist, was the norm rather than the exception.
And the Russian visa officer showed little interest in making time to explain visa requirements to the substantial number of people queuing uncomfortably, for several hours at a time, to process their travel papers.
After giving up on getting the visa in Nigeria, it took a trip to central London and a far more pleasant visit to the staff of the Russian Tourist Office in Piccadilly, to obtain the visa within 24 hours of applying for it, which certainly wouldn't have happened had I not had the luxury of dual nationality (British, in addition to being Nigerian).
With just 2% of the country's GDP coming from tourism, Mutko hopes this can be increased to 7% by 2020, should they have succeeded in hosting the football World Cup by that time, having already hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics in the resort town of Sochi.