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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Reading the Tea Leaves of Football

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If football has any role in Russian politics -- and recent history suggests that it does -- then Russia's 2-1 victory over England on Wednesday night provided perhaps the clearest signal yet that Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov is a serious contender to succeed President Vladimir Putin.

It was, after all, just four years ago -- as State Duma elections were heating up -- that United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov was shown on state television extolling the national football team's stomping of Switzerland as a victory for a "united Russia." It was a particularly unashamed piece of bandwagon campaigning.

United Russia went on to stomp its competition in comparably convincing fashion, capturing a two-thirds majority in the State Duma and turning the chamber effectively into a rubber stamp for Kremlin initiatives.

But United Russia, with Putin heading up its federal ticket in the Duma elections on Dec. 2, doesn't need football this time around. With a captain like Putin, every United Russia member could be cryogenically frozen today and defrosted Dec. 3 having captured 70 percent of the vote.

So who will benefit from Wednesday's victory, one of the most important wins for Russian football in recent history? It's no mystery to anybody who watched state-run Channel One television after the game.

Zubkov, a political unknown until last month, was shown getting the home side geared up for the game with a motivational talk highly reminiscent of Soviet times, when Communist bosses met athletes ahead of important games.

"We won the Great Patriotic War and were first to fly to space and, therefore, you must win today too. You must do everything you can," Zubkov said, cutting the air with his right hand.

It was, notably, Zubkov who received airtime, not the two men heretofore widely seen as the leading contenders to succeed Putin -- First Deputy Prime Ministers Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov -- who sat next to the prime minister in the same VIP box at Luzhniki stadium.

With Putin's coyness about who will be his preferred successor, perhaps Kremlin watchers nowadays will have to watch football reports the way Kremlinologists watched Soviet parades for clues about who's in and out of favor.

Zubkov's announcement last month that he would consider running for president sounded like a lark at first. But since then he has been all over the news, chiding underperforming ministers and buying medicine for pensioners. And now this speech to the national team.

It seems someone close to the top is seriously considering the possibility of a Zubkov presidency -- one that could end prematurely, under some pretext, with a return by Putin to the post.

But maybe Zubkov would stick around long enough to give a pep talk to Russian Olympians next summer.