FIFA president Gianni Infantino has declared the 2018 World Cup as the best ever and thanked Russia for being the perfect host.
Speaking at FIFA’s traditional tournament overview media conference, Infantino said: “For a couple of years I have been saying this will be the best World Cups ever and today I can say that with conviction – it is the best World Cup ever.
“I would like to thank everyone. The main actors are on the pitch – the players, referees and coaches – but, of course, there are also all those who have worked to make sure everything has worked smoothly, the Russians.
“A big thank you to the Russian government and the Russian president Vladimir Putin, the local organising committee, the Russian Football Union, the volunteers, the heart and smile of the World Cup, all those people, more than 100,000, who helped in one capacity or another.”
The Swiss-Italian, who took over as FIFA boss in 2016, also congratulated the 32 teams, “the main protagonists”, for letting “football talk” and he looked forward to Sunday’s “unique final” between France and Croatia, whose progress through the tournament he hoped would inspire smaller nations everywhere.
Infantino then claimed that hosting the tournament had “changed” Russia by making it a “real football country”, with the sport now “part of its DNA”. He said the footballing infrastructure built for the tournament “will put Russia on top” and FIFA would work with the Russian FA to “make sure these stadiums live”.
But it is not only Russia that has changed, according to Infantino – it is how the world views Russia.
“Everyone discovered a beautiful country, a welcoming country, that is keen to show the world that everything that has been said before might not be true,” he said.
Describing Russia as a country with a “rich culture and history”, the 48-year-old said: “A lot of preconceived ideas have been changed because people have seen the true nature of Russia.”
Asked for some more detail on why he thinks Russia 2018 has been better than the previous 20 World Cups, Infantino looked at his notes and rattled off a series of statistics: 98 per cent stadium occupancy, more than a million visitors to Russia, more than three billion viewers on TV, an expected audience of a billion for the final (“six times the Super Bowl”) and huge numbers for FIFA’s digital channels and Fan Fests.
He also mentioned FIFA’s “unprecedented” anti-doping programme, the anti-discrimination work it has done in conjunction with the diversity in football group Fare Network, the success of VAR (video assistant referees) and “pathos and emotion” of the games.
But there was more, as Infantino then said that Russia 2018’s “operational work” has been the best he has ever witnessed in his 20 years of organising football championships, for FIFA and in his previous roles with UEFA.
Infantino’s views on Russia 2018 were echoed by many in the room at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, with several reporters prefacing their questions with their own positive assessments, but the FIFA president was not given an entirely comfortable ride.
There were several questions about the wisdom of moving to a 48-team World Cup, which is scheduled to happen in 2026 in North America, but Infantino has been trying to move forward to 2022 in Qatar, and queries related to Europe’s continued dominance on the pitch.
On the issue of expansion, he remains utterly convinced of its merits and would only say that a decision on whether it is 32 or 48 teams in Qatar has not yet been made but any change to the current plan would have to be agreed by the Qataris.
On European dominance, he suggested it was ever thus but said the other regions are getting closer – citing Japan’s last-gasp defeat by Belgium as evidence – and they just need to keep developing and learning.
And on volunteers, he said we are all volunteers sometimes, every sports federation uses them at big events and the volunteers in Russia did it willingly to show their pride in Russia.
His most uncomfortable moment, however, came when he was asked if he or FIFA was at all concerned that the Russian government had used the World Cup to deflect attention from its various human-rights issues, international relations controversies and diplomatic crises.
“I think there are many injustices in the world, many things we’d like to change, not in one country, not in one region, but in the entire world,” he said.
“We are here at the World Cup celebrating football but one of the things we are missing in the world is the chance to speak to each other, to have a dialogue – that is the basis for solving some of the issues.
“We cannot solve the world’s problems but the World Cup can contribute to opening up some channels and discussions, and maybe those who have to take the important decisions can at least speak to each other.
“I think we have done something – we have made a contribution. That is what football is about. It cannot solve the problems of the world or fix the past but it can have an impact on the future and this World Cup is a testimony to that.”