US-Russia match-up would set up awkward encounter between Obama, Putin

The Rio Report

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With all this talk of the Group of Death and, most people assume, the United States' early exit from the World Cup, there is one incredibly newsworthy potential match-up that has been totally overlooked.

If the US goes head-to-head with Russia in the round of 16 in Brazil, a possibility that's greater than you might think, it would automatically qualify as the most painfully awkward and politically sensitive contest of the entire event.

Forget about heavyweights in the US's group like Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal or the star-studded Germany team, a Cold War throwback in the knockout stages would have the media fixated on the world's most influential political muscle instead, namely US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

Political leaders regularly attend World Cup games and Obama is known to be a keen follower of the US side's fortunes.

After Landon Donovan's dramatic winning goal against Algeria four years ago put the Americans through to the knockout stage, President Obama attempted, unsuccessfully, to put a telephone call through to the locker room. He communicated with the players via teleconference a day later and it was widely rumoured that he would have made the trip to South Africa if the US had advanced to the semi-finals.

Putin is not a great football fan but is rarely far from view when Russia is successful on the international sporting stage, as evidenced by his very public presence at various events of the recent Winter Olympics in Sochi. He has already committed to watching the World Cup final at Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium on July 13, a development that's not surprising since Russia will stage the 2018 World Cup. A strong run by Russia could convince him to make an earlier trip to watch his own national team.

If the Americans and Russians do meet, which would happen if the US finishes second in Group G and Russia wins Group H or, less likely, the other way around, then some head scratching in the corridors of power would inevitably follow.

Given the tense atmosphere between the two countries as a result of the Ukraine conflict, both Obama and Putin would have a tough decision to make about whether to journey to a game that would either be staged in Porto Alegre or Salvador. And, in the extraordinary scenario that they both made the trip, what would happen? Would they sit nearby, like is generally the custom for politicos at similar events? Would there be a smile and a handshake?

For now, all we know is this: the Obama administration will be represented at the team's first game of the tournament against Ghana. Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to be in attendance as part of a tour that will also see him hold bilateral talks with Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, whose office revealed last week that a total of 21 world leaders are expected to visit Brazil during the tournament including German chancellor Angela Merkel and Prince Albert of Monaco.

Obama has previously proclaimed himself to be a fan of football, throwing his support behind Premier League team West Ham United, a club that wouldn't be too offended if I described it as lacking the glamour of London neighbours Chelsea and Arsenal. He is also a "soccer dad," having cheered from the sidelines at games of his daughters Sasha and Malia. And, for whatever this is worth, Obama enjoyed a kick-about with a cute-but-creepy robot on a recent trip to Japan.

As mouth-watering as a USA-Russia clash would be, there is still some ways to go before such an outcome could happen. Russia was delighted to be pooled in Group H but is by no means certain to progress against Belgium, South Korea and Algeria. The US are underdogs in a group that also features Germany, Portugal and Ghana, in what is probably the most treacherous section of the tournament.

Getting past that – and through to the knockout phase – would be an achievement well worthy of a presidential audience.

Martin Rodgers, Yahoo! Sport

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