Forget the football, Vladimir Putin is the real World Cup winner

    Putin has a go at the World Cup football park in Red Square.

    Moscow (CNN)Vladimir Putin is having a good World Cup.

    The Russian leader has played statesman since the beginning of the tournament, playing host to presidents and prime ministers.
    More than 2.5 million tickets have been allocated to fans from Russia and around the world, showcasing his country as a tourist destination.
      And the Russian national team -- which went into the tournament as the lowest-ranked side -- has performed beyond all expectation.
      The World Cup has also raised Putin's geopolitical profile. In a meeting with the Russian President in Moscow on Wednesday, US national security adviser John Bolton complimented Putin, telling him he was eager to learn "how you handled the World Cup so successfully, among other things."
      That's more than just a diplomatic nicety. In terms of optics, the World Cup appears poised to close a chapter that began in Sochi for Putin.
      Days after the closing ceremony at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, the Russian government launched the annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, sparking a major international crisis and crippling economic sanctions against Moscow. The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine further deepened Russia's isolation, as did Putin's military intervention in Syria and the meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections.
      The Sochi Olympics also cast a shadow over Russian sport. An independent WADA-commissioned report said the Russians operated a state-sponsored doping program during the Sochi games. As a result, Russia was banned as a nation from the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, although clean Russian athletes were able to compete under the Olympic flag.
      Now Putin is presiding over a moment of international Russophilia, at least by appearances. The games have not been marred by fan violence or -- knock on wood -- by terrorism. Images of fans celebrating on the streets of Moscow and other Russian cities cast the country in a festive light. And on the geopolitical front, the Russian President will crown the World Cup by meeting US President Donald Trump in Helsinki on July 16, the day after the final.