NO DOUBT FIFA’s grandees are enjoying their Russian summer, a chance to make sure that everything’s on track for 2018 and an opportunity to taste some decent vodka, eat the finest sturgeon’s eggs and to be royally entertained by the world’s favourite bare-chested horseman.
But what is really the point of the Confederations Cup? Why do we need the competition in the first place?
The Confederations Cup has the same status as the FIFA Club World Cup, a competition that the calendar doesn’t really need. If you want to reward the likes of Portugal, Mexico, Chile et al for winning their continental cups, give them automatic entry to the next World Cup.
It has become a dry-run for the World Cup, but is that necessary? – after all, host nations get plenty of advance warning. No, this year it is somewhat different.
For Russia, a good performance on and off the field in this competition is a must. There’s not a lot of faith in the national team and Russia also has a huge public relations job to do for 2018, not least because of its almost sinister football hooliganism problem.
Earlier this year, Russian politican Igor Lebedev advocated the “legalisation” of football violence. Bizarrely, he proposed rules for what they call “draka”, the Russian word for “fight”, involving 20 fans from each club in an arena. “Russia could be the pioneer of a new sport,” he said – and he was serious.
Lebedev is a curious character, encouraging Russia’s fans when trouble broke out in France during Euro 2016. There’s the potential for even more problems in this direction given the Russians are on home soil. The leader of Spartak Moscow’s “Gladiators” has promised a “festival of violence” to greet English fans.
Racism is also rife, although Russian football people like Alexei Smertin have denied it is a problem. “I have a black wife, I cannot go and live back in Russia,” said a Russian colleague of mine last year. “It would be too tough for her and my son,” commented the former Red Army tank driver and CSKA Moscow fan, Sergei.
To add to the negative feeling about a Russian-hosted World Cup, it was recently revealed that two construction companies have used North Korean slave labour to ensure the stadium in St. Petersburg will be ready on time. Allegedly, they work seven days a week and live in squalor in shipping containers of all things, according to media reports. Needless to say, the building programme has struggled and spending has exceeded plans. Russia recently added another 4.7 billion rubles to the budget (USD 80m).
The rest of the football world is not exactly enamoured about Russia hosting the World Cup and British football fans have not had good experiences when visiting the country. The UK’s Foreign Affairs Committee has already gone public with a plea for British authorities not to boycott the World Cup. It urges the Foreign & Commonwealth Office to “Facilitate co-operation between British police and their Russian counterparts to minimize the possibility that serious trouble occurs again; plan to increase its staff in Russia during the World Cup to meet the likely surge in demand for consular services.” That doesn’t fill you with much confidence.
Russians believe the trouble-makers will be stopped by the police and rather naively point to the trouble-free Olympics, which is a ludicrous comparison. But you can be certain that Vladimir Putin will fight fire with fire in order to give the impression to the world that Russia is closer to western society than people believe.
The financial rewards of a successful World Cup are obvious. Russia could make as much as USD 1bn if all goes well, and there could be a million visitors spending hard currency. As well as the initial financial impact, Russian bean-counters are suggesting that the longer-term effect could be up to USD 14bn. “The World Cup will open-up Russia for tourists,” said the TASS agency.
That’s if they go, for there are fears that the image of Russia, the frosty relationship with the west and the behaviour of fans in France 2016 will all conspire to stop people from travelling. Putin has also thrown an enticement in declaring that visas won’t be needed, but personal security is a major consideration. The Blackstone Consultancy, in its report on Russia 2018, commented: “Although Russia is far from Africa or Latin America in terms of violent crime, it is still far from being safe.”
The Confederations Cup can go some way to presenting the world with a user-friendly Russia. As for the team, it is a long way off from being competitive on the world stage, but you somehow get the feeling that come 2018, they will be better equipped to make a challenge. In the meantime, Putin and his football officials will be hoping the competition helps repair their country’s reputation before the world turns up in 12 months’ time. You can be sure that the “told you so” element will be watching very carefully.