The quadrennial tournament, which gets underway Thursday and runs through July 15, has been readied with Russia ever-present on the global news agenda due to wars in Ukraine and Syria, the Olympic doping scandal, meddling in Western elections and the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Those controversies go some way to explaining why a handful of world leaders have decided not to attend the competition.
Just as Brazil 2014 kicked off with major protests due to the exorbitant cost of stadia, Russia 2018 has its own set of concerns on the ground.
First and foremost is security. After months of negative news cycles, it’s time for Russia’s big close-up, and putting on a good and safe show is paramount for Vladimir Putin (who isn’t a big soccer fan).
Millions of supporters will travel to watch World Cup games, giving local and international security services plenty to think about. Putin told police chiefs in February that “the image of the nation depends upon the thoroughness of your work,” and millions of dollars has been spent on ensuring that police and other forces have what they need.
While UK tabloids predictably have gone overboard, churning out pages and pages on the danger posed to UK fans from Russian hooligans, a level of concern certainly is justified. At the European Championships in France two years ago, there were ugly scenes as Russian thugs attacked England fans — who have their own nasty minority — before and during a match between the two countries in Marseille.
Russian authorities therefore have co-ordinated with foreign police forces and international soccer organizations in a bid to minimize trouble. Moscow officials have blacklisted hundreds from receiving the mandatory “fan IDs” and some stadia will include surveillance cameras equipped with facial recognition and video drones to identify troublemakers.
Rostov-on-Don, one of 11 host cities, reportedly will feature 300 “Cossack paramilitaries” to help regular police keep streets safe. These horseback militias gained some notoriety after being filmed beating anti-government protesters with leather horsewhips in early May.
While hooliganism has been much discussed abroad, local media is more concerned about the threat posed by international terrorism.
Washington’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies estimates that about 8,500 extremists from Russia and the former Soviet central Asia have joined the ranks of ISIS and other Islamist groups in the region. ISIS has threatened violence at the World Cup, including to specific players.
The 2014 Winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi and the 2017 Confederations Cup held in Russia both went off without a major security glitch, and organizers are hopeful that the World Cup will no different.
“Our security operation is taking into account all types of possible dangers and risks,” World Cup Organizing Committee chief Alexei Sorokin told AFP. “Everything is under control, and I hope that we will find the right balance between comfort and security, without tilting to one side or the other.”
Racism and homophobia
The subjects of racism and homophobia in and outside stadiums has proven an almost daily fix for Western media, even if it hasn’t captivated local press and broadcasters to the same extent. The spectre of discrimination is so real that a handful of players, including England International Danny Rose, have told family members not to travel to the tournament for fear of abuse.
Racist and homophobic incidents are on the rise in Russian soccer, according to a new report recently published by the anti-discrimination Fare Network and the Moscow-based Sova Centre.
The report highlights an increase in the number of racist and homophobic chants inside stadiums in the past season, including monkey chants directed at black players, neo-Nazi songs, anti-Caucasian chants and homophobic slurs.
“This is a practice that takes sustenance from state-led homophobia, but has been copied from leagues in Western Europe,” the report notes. Indeed, the aforementioned Cossack vigilantes brought in to help security forces say they will report to police if they spot same-sex couples kissing in public.
Despite the rise in racist and homophobic chants, the total number of discriminatory incidents has continued to decline, according to the report.
It should also be noted that Russia certainly is not alone in having problems with racism within soccer. Spain, Italy, Eastern Europe and the UK have all had their issues too.
Ethical questions also have been raised about Egypt being based in Chechnya, the war-torn former republic of Russia where Chechnyan leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s regime has been criticized for alleged human rights abuses. And there are growing concerns for filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, the imprisoned Ukrainian filmmaker who is now in the second month of hunger strike. Sentsov’s family had asked Putin to release him ahead of the World Cup, but there is no sign of that happening so far.
Stadia, VAR and Russian team
One aspect of the tournament that should please traveling fans is the stadia. Russia has spent more than $11B on infrastructure, including construction and renovation at 12 impressive venues spread over 1,800 miles. The 81,000-capacity Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow will be the centerpiece stadium.
However, as has become the norm at World Cups and Olympic Games, concerns have been raised about the viability of these venues once the cameras go home. Some of the grand stadia will see thousands of seats removed post-tournament to become new homes for small soccer clubs who even then have no chance of filling them.
Public criticism of the Russian government can be dangerous, especially for those in the region, so it has largely been left to international media to raise questions about the justification for and transparency around such lavish construction at a time when the local economy is struggling and, according to a recent poll, more than half the Russian population consider themselves poor.
Meanwhile, we also can expect plenty of bandwidth devoted to VAR: video assistant refereeing. This is the first major tournament to use the much-discussed new technology whereby goals, penalty decisions, direct red cards and cases of mistaken identity can all be reviewed by referees. While reviews are common in NFL and other sports, soccer only has introduced the system in the past 12 months. The technology divides fans and pundits alike, and its World Cup debut is sure to stoke more debate.
As we draw closer to Thursday’s opening game pitting Russia against Saudi Arabia, media attention has begun to concentrate on the wealth of star players and exciting games on offer at the soccer fest. Argentina’s Messi, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Egypt’s Mo Salah (whose fitness has been another major talking point), France’s Paul Pobga and Brazil’s Neymar are just a few of the superstars set to delight fans across the five-week event.
It has become clear that most Russians and many local media are just as worried about the on-field performance of their team as they are about off-field concerns. Russia will be the lowest-ranked team at the tournament following a string of poor results, and the proud nation will not want to suffer the ignominy of becoming only the second host country not to reach the knockout phase of the tournament.