Outside the Church of Christ the Saviour, the white, golden-domed headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Fifa World Cup 2018 souvenirs being sold in kiosks offer clues about the mega-show about to unfold.
Inside the building, clerical leaders have developed their own plan for using the tournament to promote their vision of Russia’s conservative culture.
Last week, Patriarch Kirill announced the creation of a new “sports commission” within the Church. Addressing an audience that included the boxer Nikolai Valuev, he said the time had come to create a “permanent system” of interaction between the church and sports community.
“Sport offers a way to elevate man’s physical and spiritual culture, and it should be a tool for the Church,” the Russian Orthodox primate said. “The task of an athlete is the same as that of a monk; without self-control there can be no success.”
Priests across the country have played their part in preparing the country for the tournament. They have blessed the stadiums and the teams. They have delivered sermons on the Christian nature of team sports. On Wednesday, the Patriarch gave his own blessing to the tournament.
He is expected to attend Thursday’s grand opening – just as he did at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
“The Patriarch wants to make the sports community more Christian,” press secretary Vakhtang Kipshidze tells The Independent. “The World Cup is great chance to do that, to help those new to the Church understand our spirituality.”
More than 70 per cent of Russians identify as Christian, but most wear that badge lightly.
If one recent survey is to believed, no more than 6 per cent actually attend mass. But having been neutered during the Soviet era, the Russian Orthodox Church is now very much a force to be reckoned with. Much of its new relevance comes from an ever-closer bond with the state.
Under its current leadership, the Church has embraced the key tenets of Putinism: nationalism, exceptionalism, traditionalism, and hostility to liberalism and gay rights.
Some of its members played prominent roles in the Kremlin military campaigns in Syria and Ukraine, occasionally even blessing weapons systems.
The Patriarch regularly declares his fondness for Mr Putin, and threw his weight behind the president’s recent re-election campaign. His “vivid” victory spoke of the unity of the nation, he said.
At the Church of Saint Nicholas, a few blocks away, Father Alexander Shumsky is also, it seems, a fan.
“Putin is a gift from God,” he tells The Independent. “And the World Cup was a gift from Putin. It is only thanks to our president, his determined efforts, that we have got the tournament in our country, thank the Lord.”
Father Shumsky says the Russian World Cup will allow the Church to show the best of its traditional values to the world. It was only right for the Church to step in to “nourish” and “influence” the athletes, he adds.
The priest, a former amateur footballer, says he is looking forward to seeing his favourite players on Russian soil. From the current crop, he likes the “traditionalist” Lionel Messi – “He’s a believer, you see it when he crosses himself after scoring a goal. A good lad, someone who loves his family.”
He is not so keen on Cristiano Ronaldo – “A bit different, isn’t he, from a liberal background.”
Father Shumsky came to prominence during the last World Cup in Brazil, when he declared the tournament to be the work of Sodom. The basis for his judgement appeared to be because some of the players were playing in bright pink boots.
“I felt it wasn’t right, blue boots are much more masculine,” he says today. “I’m totally against all these rainbow images too.”
If official statements are to be believed, Father Shumsky will be left disappointed by this World Cup too. Organisers have promised that the World Cup will be an LGBT+ friendly event, and traditional Russian state hostility to gay rights is set to be toned down for a month. There will be no prosecutions for unveiling rainbow symbols inside the stadium.
The leader of a nationalistic vigilante group associated with the Church said he hoped Russian traditions would be enough to “discipline” visitors.
“Perhaps the visitors might act differently in other countries, but in Russia people are simply forced to respect our thousands of years of history and culture,” says Andrei Kormukhin, leader of the 40×40 movement.
Russia would prove to be the most hospitable nation on earth – “but there will be no gays with bare bottoms out on the streets of Moscow”.
Though not actually listed among official attendees, Mr Kormukhin says his organisation was among those participating in the Church’s new sports commission.
“Putin has said that by 2024, 55 per cent of Russians should be doing sport, so of course the Church needs to establish themselves in the country’s sporting life,” he says.
Given recent miserable form, some have joked that the full force of Russian spirituality is not yet established within the national football team.
On Wednesday, Patriarch Kirill seemed to address such concerns, calling for the country to “hope and pray” that the Russian team played well.