The spotlight is on Russia as the country prepares to host its dress rehearsal ahead of next year’s football World Cup amid growing concerning about the readiness of the venues and safety of fans.
The Kremlin has boosted security measures and rushed to complete a controversial $1.5bn stadium in St Petersburg as it banks on Fifa’s Confederations Cup to showcase its ability to host a successful World Cup in 2018. The eight-nation tournament kicks off at the scandal-plagued St Petersburg stadium on June 17 when hosts Russia take on soccer minnows New Zealand.
President Vladimir Putin, who personally participated in Russia’s bid to host the World Cup, will be hoping the two-week competition goes without a hiccup as the country struggles to emerge from political isolation over his interference in conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.
Deputy head of the FSB intelligence service Alexei Lavrischev said security measures are being tightened for the tournament, which will run until July 2 in St Petersburg, Moscow, Sochi and Kazan. Some fans have declined to travel in the wake of a metro bomb in St Petersburg in April, which killed 14.
Construction and upgrading of many of the stadiums has been a massive financial headache for Russia, which is just emerging from a three-year recession. The building of the 68,000-seater St Petersburg stadium has been a farce, with the budget jumping six-fold in its decade-long construction. There are still concerns about the state-of-the-art retractable pitch, which had to be re-laid just a month ago after cutting up during the first test game.
On June 14, Russian media reported that a significant fire had broken out at the Volgograd Arena. The stadium, which is earmarked for completion early next year, is supposed to be hosting eight World Cup games.
More damaging for Russia’s reputation has been allegations of “slave labour” and human rights abuses.
In a report released on June 14, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says it has documented cases in which workers were not paid, worked in dangerously cold conditions, and suffered reprisals for raising concerns. HRW claims at least 17 workers have died on World Cup construction sites in Russia, while other reports have emerged of 190 North Korean labourers being forced to work effectively as slaves in the building of the St Petersburg venue.
In February, the government said it had boosted its spending on preparations for the event by RUB19.1bn (€300mn), bringing total spending on the event to around €10bn, including investments from the public and private sectors.
On a positive note, Fifa said it had reached a agreement for Russian broadcasters to show the Confederations Cup in a deal that came just days before the tournament starts.
Russian officials, who have yet to ink a deal for the World Cup, had said that Fifa was seeking too much money for the contract. The tournament will be broadcast by state-run Channel One television and the sports network Match TV.
Confederation Cup games can be lightly attended as countries, like the reigning champions Germany, tend to send second-string teams. However, some fans have been deterred by the price of travelling and staying in Russia.
Tom Daly, a football fan from Liverpool, was the only one of his gang of friends who is braving Russia to attend the Confederation Cup. England fans have been warned in a BBC documentary that they are “100% guaranteed” to be the target for Russian hooligans at the 2018 World Cup and that the tournament will be “a festival of violence” for some locals.
“I am more afraid of the extortionists rather than the hooligans,” Daly, a media executive, tells bne IntelliNews after landing in Moscow. “I imagine the riot police will keep them in check. I have been to Champions League matches before in Russia and the pitch was ring-fenced by soldiers.”
‘100% hooligan targets’
Since violent clashes between Russian and English football hooligans in Marseilles tarnished the European championship in France last year, Putin has introduced legislation that toughens punishments for violence at sporting events.
The authorities say the Confederations Cup’s ticketing system, which requires ticket holders to apply for a personalised fan-ID, will ensure that fans are screened and hooligans are kept away.
Daly, who has tickets for three games in Moscow, Kazan and St Petersburg, travelled on a “Fan ID” rather than a visa, but there was confusion when he arrived from in Moscow from Manchester via Frankfurt. “Lufthansa didn’t have a clue what it was and the immigration in Moscow were baffled, so I had to wait,” says Daly, who imagines the system will be bedded down by the summer of 2018.
Tickets for the World Cup itself have been priced from $105 to a record $1,050 – putting attendance out of the pockets of many of the locals, who earn about $500 a month on average.
Western sponsors have also so far been slow to come on board due to sanctions and Russia’s growing international isolation. Both Sony and Emirates are believed to have backed away from packages.
Alfa Bank, Russia’s second-largest private lender, was named a year ago as the “first of up to 20 regional World Cup sponsors”. Gazprom, the energy monopoly, has been on board as a partner since 2013, while Chinese conglomerate Wanda and smartphone maker Vivo have since stepped in as partners in recent months.
Western corporates have cited the excessive $150mn cost of sponsorship deals and the fallout from Fifa’s 2015 corruption scandal, which led to question marks about the selection of both Russia and Qatar to host the World Cup.
"I think there will be a last minute rush to get the sponsors on board," Sasha Goryunov, a pundit for Russia's Match TV and a regulator on The Guardian newspaper's football podcast, tells bne IntelliNews. "Whilst other factors – like politics – play a role, I think the general lack of organisation plays a part too and the fact that FIFA are in a permanent state of crisis at the moment."
Domestic football fans are not betting on Russia, now ranked a lowly 63rd in Fifa world rankings, to cover themselves in glory. The team has gone through three coaches in the past two years and recently lost a game to Qatar, relative nobodies in footballing terms. Putin even criticised the side after the Qatar loss.
The domestic game in Russia suffers from a lack of investment and is blighted by racism and hooliganism.
Alexander Zotov of the Professional Footballers’ Association says that players frequently go without any wages and cited the recent example of Voronezh, who haven't been paid for months despite earning promotion to the Premier League. “There’s about 3,500 professional players in Russia and most of them are not paid on time and they earn about an average of €500 a month,” says Zotov.
Zenit St Petersburg, backed by Gazprom, is the only team with a credible academy for young footballers and tends to snap up all the talent, according to Zotov. “But then they have no one to play against,” he says.
Brazilian striker Hulk, who played for Zenit, said racism is commonplace in Russian football and he noted incidents in “almost every game”.
But former Chelsea midfielder Alexei Smertin, who has been put in charge of investigating football racism in Russia, has dismissed concerns there could be racist incidents at next year’s World Cup. “Racism in Russia is like fashion,” Smertin told the BBC. “It comes from abroad, from different countries. It was never, ever here before. Ten years ago, some fans may have given a banana to black guys – it was just for fun. I think the media is making the wrong image of Russia.”
Zotov admits that racism is a problem in Russian society, but says Western media over-dramatises some incidents. “We have some racism and bullying in the stands but it is not as bad as reported,” says Zotov. “We need to tackle this problem and teach people we are all the same.”
The World Cup, which will stretch from Kaliningrad on Russia’s Baltic enclave to Yekaterinburg in the Urals, will test Russia’s financial and organisational resources to the limit, as well as fans’ pockets.
"Hotels and transports will be issues at the likes of Saransk and Ekaterinburg - if anyone turns up there, that is," says Goryunov. "Realistically, they'd have to stick on loads of extra flights and trains but we haven't seen anything about such plans yet."
But the country – which was pilloried by Western media in advance of the Sochi Olympics – has shown it has the ability to put on large sporting events with great aplomb. However, much of that goodwill from putting on an amazing event on the Black Sea resort in 2014 was ultimately squandered when Putin ordered the annexation of Crimea weeks later.