Russia hopes Confederations Cup will banish 2018 World Cup concerns | Shaun Walker
On the eve of the Confederations Cup, the focus for officials is on having a smooth event now that shows fans there is nothing to fear from coming to Russia for the 2018 World Cup
With less than a year to go until the World Cup kicks off at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, excitement is building inside Russia as the country prepares to host the Confederations Cup, the eight-team warm-up tournament designed as a dress rehearsal for 2018.
As the authorities promise a spectacular, exciting finals next year, the setup is beset with all the usual worries that accompany a major tournament, as well as a couple of Russia-specific ones.
In addition to the standard concerns of stadium readiness and security fears, international observers have also raised labour rights and the issue of potential racism against fans or players and the potential for hooliganism, after the horrific clashes between Russia and England fans in Marseille last summer.
Added to all of that are concerns about the home team, after Russia were humiliated at Euro 2016, securing a point against England but being soundly beaten by Slovakia and Wales. A new, younger side are still finding their feet but the hope is that the Confederations Cup, which starts when Russia take on New Zealand in St Petersburg on Saturday night, will provide a springboard to avoid disaster on home soil next year.
Portugal and Mexico are the remaining teams in the hosts’ group, while the other half of the draw contains Germany, Chile, Cameroon and Australia. Four of next year’s 10 World Cup cities will stage games, with stadiums in many of the others still under construction. It will open at the Zenit Arena in St Petersburg, which has been plagued with allegations of corruption and construction delays. The project, which was meant to be finished in 2008, was completed only this year, nearly a decade late and at least 600% over budget. There are still concerns about the state of the pitch.
A report released by Human Rights Watch this week said the organisation had discovered some workers had been subjected to dangerous working conditions or had delays receiving wages. It estimated that 17 workers have died on World Cup stadium sites. The organisation documented an “atmosphere of intimidation, suspicion, and secrecy” around labour conditions and even had one of its researchers detained by local police.
This month an Observer investigation found that at least 190 North Korean workers had been engaged in the construction of the stadium. The men worked long shifts with no days off “like prisoners of war”, according to one of the subcontractors.
Then there is the security threat – the St Petersburg metro system was hit by a suicide bomber in April – but authorities are confident that a tough crackdown on Russia’s homegrown insurgency and high security at the tournaments will prevent any attacks, as was the case during the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.
Russian officials are bullish about the prospects for the World Cup and believe the tournament is a chance to show the world a different side of the country from the daily headlines about election hacking abroad and rights infringements at home.
As with Sochi, there is a hope that the tournament will help unite the nation, as well as show off the country to the world. Russian officials claim western coverage of problems in the run-up to both the Olympics and the World Cup is “fake news” born of supposed anti‑Russian feelings in the west.
“We can show that we are normal people,” said German Tkachenko, who was previously chairman of the Russian top-flight side Krylia Sovetov and runs an agency that represents a number of Russian footballers. “We are not alligators, we can speak English, we can smile.”
Under the spotlight next summer will be Russia’s record on racism, with a history of officials ignoring or denying the problem. Alexei Smertin, appointed as a special racism investigator before the World Cup, said in 2015 that there was no racism at all in Russia, even though a fan group logged 93 incidents of racist chants or behaviour during the 2014-15 season.
However, Fifa and Russia insist they are taking the problem seriously now, and Fifa has instituted a new three-step system at the Confederations Cup which will allow referees to stop the play while an announcement is made demanding any chants or discriminatory behaviour stops immediately. They will have further authority to suspend or abandon the game if such chanting continues, though it is unclear how the result of such a match would be decided or whether a replay would be required.
Finally, there is the issue of potential fan violence, raised after what appeared to be carefully coordinated Russian fan violence at the Euros last summer. The fact that some in Moscow, including an executive at the Russian Football Union, appeared to encourage the violence, was hardly reassuring.
But if the violence was almost welcomed when it happened abroad, authorities do not want a repeat on home soil and are prepared for tough policing. There are already reports that authorities are cracking down on hooligan elements around Russian clubs, promising strict penalties for anyone involved in violence, in an attempt to ensure the tournament goes off smoothly.
After a BBC documentary this year captured violent fans who said they were looking forward to fights during the World Cup, Spartak Moscow fans unveiled giant banners at a game in March, one calling the BBC “Blah Blah Channel” and the other saying: “Welcome to Russia 2018.”
Tkachenko claimed western media had given Russia an unfair hearing in recent years, saying the England fans involved in the clashes with Russia were “not monks” and that both sides were to blame. He insisted there would be no random violence next summer, saying: “There is no chance of such a thing happening here, I can promise it. It’s not going to happen in the streets. Fans sometimes make established fights, but real fans never fight ordinary people. It’s against the rules.”
With a year to go, the focus for Russian officials is on having a smooth Confederations Cup that shows fans there is nothing to fear from coming to Russia. The country has waived its visa policy for all ticket holders and is even offering free transport between the stadiums for those with match tickets for Confederations Cup games and World Cup games next summer. This should help fans avoid the astronomical internal flight prices that tend to accompany World Cups.
They will need time on their hands, though: the trains offered free between Sochi and St Petersburg during the Confederations Cup, for example, take between 36 and 48 hours. The World Cup venues are all clustered in a relatively small European section of Russia’s vast landmass but the distances are nevertheless daunting, and much of the high-speed train network promised during the bid period has not been built.
Amid all the concern, perhaps the best thing for Russia was that Qatar won the hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup. When compared with the Gulf state, the rights violations during the stadium construction and general worries about atmosphere during the tournament appear relatively insignificant. Russia, unlike Qatar, is a football-loving nation with a number of pleasant and exciting host cities, meaning the tournament could provide the last chance for eight years for fans to visit a “proper” World Cup.