I was lucky enough to be out in Moscow the weekend when England surged past Sweden and Russia came up agonisingly short against Croatia.
I was in Moscow, not St Petersburg or Samara; but it was still obvious the country was alive with the excitement, optimism and, frankly, energy of the World Cup.  All generated by a tournament that captivated fans in all corners of the globe.
Figures released last week by FIFA revealed that after the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ group stages, TV audience figures have already surpassed the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ full-tournament figures – 815m vs. 623m (average audience).
With France beating Croatia yesterday to confirm themselves as World Cup winners on the pitch, debate has quickly turned to who have been the winners off the pitch.
My ‘off the pitch’ winners have been countries, not brands; and my one, two is Russia followed by China.
The view on Russia in the build-up – certainly coming through media commentators, players and myself – was that the tournament would be scarred by hooligan unrest and ignorant fan chants.
The reality has, thankfully, largely proved different. How choreographed, or not, that has been, I don’t know. Although the umbrellas for the dignitaries were notably slow to arrive as France and Croatia received their medals.
When I was in Moscow, I found a city full of friendly and helpful locals who were pleased to see fans from around the world; happy to help them navigate the city and enjoy the tournament. Their favourite overseas fans? Mexico. Every time.
They also got behind their Russian team with increasing numbers and noise as they went from unlikely outsiders to rousing dark horses. All under the guidance of Scholari Doppelganger, Stanislav Cherchesov.
Beyond Russia, I think China was the biggest winner.
With China recording 14 out of the top 20 biggest TV audiences of the group stages and CCTV-5’s live coverage of Brazil against Costa Rica attracting an average audience of 43.33 million viewers and a peak 1-minute audience of 103.56 million viewers – the first ever FIFA World Cup match to break the 100m barrier in one market – the numbers were eye-watering. (Source: CCTV)
Just to put that into perspective, the peak audience on ITV for England against Croatia was 26.6m. That’s 40% of the 65.64 million that live in the UK. If 40% of the population in China tuned in to cheer on a Chinese team – where they to qualify for the next World Cup in 2022 – that would mean a potential peak audience of 551.6 million.
In Russia, the impact was even greater with more than 100k Chinese fans making the trip to support a host of different teams and star players. We’ve heard of fans having ‘second teams’; here we had teams having ‘second fans’. With Chinese supporters almost omnipresent.
Walking down FIFA’s Commercial Display outside the Luzhniki Stadium, this impact was only re-enforced by the number of Chinese sponsors on display.  Seven out of FIFA’s 19 sponsors for the tournament came from China.
Wanda Sport’s CEO Hengming Yang, FIFA’s first ever top partner from China, was moved to comment that:
“I think the impact of this tournament will be a game-changing moment for football in China. It will embed an even more engaged football culture within our country that will help develop the game both at an elite and grass roots level. I think this has gone beyond a time when Chinese fans were simply wanting to watch and cheer on the big games and big players.”
I’d perhaps go further and say that for Russia and China this World Cup could be country-changing.
That’s not to say that the 2018 FIFA World Cup will change the course of Russian or Chinese history. But rather to acknowledge the potential impact a sports event can have on a country in terms of bringing it together; uniting behind a common cause; and enjoying a sporting spotlight.
Japan offer a good yardstick for China in this respect. They co-hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2002. Fast forward 16 years and as a nation, they are now a very credible, competitive force in world football who have qualified for every World Cup since. In Russia, they won plenty of plaudits and only lost out to Belgium in a tight Round of 16 game.
The point being, there is a good precedent in the region of how a healthy foundation of interest and grass root participation converts to elite pathways that has the potential to deliver a very strong national team.
We also saw it here in the UK in 2012 when the pleasantly surprising success of London’s hosting of the Olympics heralded a golden age of this country hosting some of the biggest international sports event and a nation that appeared to find its confidence.
The BBC’s Tom Fordyce described it well in an article ahead of England’s Semi Final with Croatia on the BBC website – saying that: “one of the few lasting bequests of London 2012 was its sense that – for a nation that spends so much time reflexively looking backwards – the Games offered a vision of modern Britain that felt simultaneously new and familiar to every one of us.”
I’ve been generally disappointed with the sponsor activity around this World Cup. Mostly it’s just not caught my attention. Beyond the pleasingly opportunistic alliteration of M&S’s ‘Waistcoast Wednesday’, it’s countries that have been the biggest off-the-pitch winners for me.
To borrow – and then ever so slightly tweak – the words of Eden Hazard following Belgium’s defeat to France, when he said: “I’d rather lose with this Belgium team than win with that France team.”
Well, I’d rather see new sponsors try new things and learn something from pushing the envelope than the same old sponsors covering old ground.
FIFA’s Chief Commercial Officer, Philippe Le Floc’h, echoed something similar when he spoke to media last Sunday.
Spasibo Rossiya [Thank you Russia]. Xièxiè Éguó [Thank you China]. Bien joué France [Well done France].
And from a purely self-centred and English perspective: ‘Nice one Gareth’.