Mission and tasks: what are ambassadors for?
If we were to put the ambassadors’ mission in three words, those words would be: “tell,” “show” and “inspire”: tell about the tournament, show its host country, rediscovering it for their fellow-countrymen and foreigners alike, and inspire love for the host country – and for football. This goes for any FIFA World Cup.
The ambassadors’ mission is tied to the World Cup image. “There are emblems and symbols specially created by artists or designers, and then there are symbols of an entirely different order,” said Aleksei Sorokin, CEO of the Russia-2018 Local Organising Committee. “It’s the people who embody the values and qualities of the sport and of the host nation.”
Like any “living” symbol, it is absolutely essential that a World Cup ambassador advocates sports and healthy living. It doesn’t matter if the ambassador is not a professional football player. It isn’t about the game per se, but about demonstrating the sport as a part, and a crucial part, of the nation’s life, integral to its cultural core.
One other aspect of the ambassadors’ mission is propagation and promotion of the 2018 World Cup. A high-profile sporting event and a worldwide focus though it is, a World Cup does require dedicated support. By tradition, the ambassadors participate in the events that are preparation milestones for the tournament, and they officially represent the World Cup at meetings and activities on different levels. "We have elected athletes - members of our football family, - cultural figures, artists, and members of the fan community to be our ambassadors for World Cup’2018,” said Russian Minister of Sports Vitaly Mutko, who chairs the Russia-2018 Local Organising Committee. “They will propagate World Cup values in Russia and beyond.”
The practice of appointing World Cup ambassadors has varied from one tournament to another. Each of the ambassadors appointed for the 2006 World Cup in Germany represented one of the tournament’s host cities. There were 12 former German national team players among them, including 7 world champions and 3 European champions. In South Africa in 2010, and Brazil in 2014, official representatives were appointed to stand for the whole tournament, rather than any individual region. In South Africa, promotion of the 2010 World Cup was entrusted to the former national team players. In Brazil, the line-up of World Cup ambassadors included two football legends – Ronaldo and Bebeto, three other big-name footballers and coaches – Carlos Alberto Torres, Zagallo and Amarildo, and Marta, the five-time FIFA World Player of the Year. Brazilian artist and sculptor Romero Britto was also appointed ambassador for FIFA World Cup’2014 Brazil. “King of Football” Pele was named honorary ambassador.
The mission of World Cup ambassadors far transcends mere representation. “On the one hand, they are expected to be these role models for millions of Russian boys and girls, exemplifying the best human and athletic qualities,” said Aleksei Sorokin. “On the other hand, host city ambassadors will serve as signatures of sorts of those wonderful regions of ours, which will host the World Cup games, and will help fans around the world learn more about their respective host cities.”
Russia’s line-up of “role models” includes active and retired athletes, artists, rock musicians, TV hosts and composers.
Russia’s No. 1 ambassador
Russia had named its first ambassador, representing all of World Cup’2018 Russia rather than an individual host city, as early as March 2012. It was Igor Akinfeev, goalkeeper for the national team and Moscow’s CSKA. “Igor exemplifies all the best that makes a man and an athlete,” said Vitaly Mutko as he awarded ambassador’s credentials to the goalkeeper. “He is a true professional and gentleman, a man of honesty and integrity, in a word, a great captain and a great leader for all the teams he plays on.”
Akinfeev, who is 15th on the IFFHS list of the 21st century’s top goalkeepers, started his career at age 16 on CSKA line-up, playing against Zenit. He would play his first national team game two years later. Akinfeev has won five Russian Cups, and a UEFA bronze in 2008.
Akinfeev admitted he had not expected to be appointed a World Cup’2018 ambassador. “The Organizing Committee’s offer came totally out of the blue, but I didn’t think twice about it, and agreed right away,” he recalls. “It’s a great honour for me, a matter of great pride and responsibility. I always do my best to live up to this exalted status with my conduct in and outside the field.”
The leading athletes: who will tell the world about Russian sports?
Besides Akinfeev, there are a few other professional athletes on the ambassadorial squad, epitomizing the best in Russian sports, including three-time Olympic Champion Natalia Ishchenko and four-time Olympic Champion Aleksei Nemov.
Ishchenko, the Russian synchronized swimming icon, does not often reveal what it takes to win in her sport. "The leader may never rest on those laurels,” Ishchenko said, and she’s said this much repeatedly over the course of her career. “The leader must continually invent something new and exciting. He or she has no right to fail – everyone is always holding their breath for Russia to fail. We’ve been the leaders for years, so naturally, many people are fed up with it.”
Ishchenko admits she’d had no second thoughts about taking the offer to represent her hometown, Kaliningrad. "We, the people of Kaliningrad, and all football fans, are just so happy that this World Cup will be talking place in Russia,” she said. “I’m sure Kaliningrad will do a great job hosting the games.”
Aleksei Nemov, the gymnast who will represent Saransk, was named the planet’s top athlete in 2000. The world remembers Nemov’s staunch commitment to fair play, the key value in sports, as well as his many medals. A controversial judgment caused much resentment and protests in the stalls at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. The audience would not be pacified until Nemov himself stepped in, giving up his prize, but winning acclaim for his generous, sportsmanlike conduct, rewarded with a special prize from the International Fair Play Committee.
Nemov believes that the World Cup organizers, and all Russian people, must take a few steps forward and show the whole world that Russia can host tournaments of any scale and level. “It’s well within our power to do this,” he said. “And I’m sure Saransk will do well, as our local people fully realize the responsibility involved. We welcome all those who will be here to support their favourite teams, and we’ll do our best to make them feel comfortable in our cute little town.”
With their careers and their whole lives, four-time Olympic Swimming Champion Aleksander Popov and Olympic Wrestling Champion Varteres Samurgashev can also set a good example for young athletes.
Samurgashev, a Greco-Roman wrestler, opened a sports school in his native Rostov-on-Don together with his brother Rafael 15 years ago. Their pupils have won many an international match and championship over the years. Popov, the famous swimmer and ambassador for Ekaterinburg, contributes to swimming pool construction and runs his own cup tournament for young swimmers.
Another ambassador, Pavel Datsyuk, two-time Stanley Cup winner and one of the top players on the National Hockey League, also hails from Ekaterinburg. “The Magic Man” believes the planet is in for a spectacular football fest with the 2018 World Cup. "A FIFA World Cup is only rivalled by the Olympic Games, also held once every four years,” he said. “I’m happy for my beloved Ekaterinburg hosting World Cup games and making football history. It’s a major step up for the region.”
Russia’s culture and personality
Not only athletes are on the World Cup’2018 ambassadors’ team. "I believe that only people are able to express to the maximum degree the essence of what it means to have a FIFA World Cup in Russia, as well as the essence of the culture, traditions and personality of Russia and the host regions,” said Aleksei Sorokin. “It’s a source of happiness and pride for me to realize that there is no dearth of such people in Russia.”
On the ambassadorial team, culture is the domain of Ekaterinburg. This city in the Urals will be represented by two musicians at once: rock singer/songwriter Vyacheslav Butusov and composer Aleksander Pantykin, whom music critics in his hometown have christened the “grandfather” of the Urals brand of rock.
Pantykin, who had led the first local rock band to attain nationwide notoriety, Urfin Juice, was instrumental in giving Ekaterinburg, then Sverdlovsk, its first rock club. Pantykin also collaborated with another band, Nautilus Pompilius, and its front-man Vyacheslav Butusov.
More host city ambassadors remain to be named before World Cup’2018. Some of them are not known so well outside their home country, so the rest of the world will discover these people as it discovers Russia. Others are popular enough to make international fans want to learn unfamiliar Russian place names. In any event, no ambassador will get away with merely posing as a poster-boy. Their role as narrator and a big fan of their country behoves them to make millions of people fall in love with Russia.
- Igor Akinfeev, goalkeeper for Russia’s national team and Moscow’s FC CSKA
- Natalia Ishchenko, three-time Olympic Champion in Synchronized Swimming
- Aleksei Nemov, four-time Olympic Champion, Vice President of the Federation of Olympic Gymnastics of Russia
- Oleg Shatov, halfback for FC Zenit and Russia’s national team;
- Aleksander Popov, four-time Olympic Swimming Champion, First Vice President of the Russian National Swimming Federation;
- Pavel Datsyuk, repeat Stanley Cup winner, world ice hockey champion;
- Aleksander Pantykin, Russian composer and playwright, prize-winner of Golden Mask National Theatre Awards;
- Vyacheslav Butusov, rock singer/songwriter, front-man of the bands Nautilus Pompilius and U-Piter;
- Anton Shipulin, Olympic Champion and five-time World Biathlon Champion.
- Varteres Samurgashev, Greco-Roman wrestler, Olympic Champion and two-time World Champion;
- Dmitry Dibrov, TV host;
- Viktoria Lopyreva, TV host, Miss Russia’2003.