On that unforgettable December night at FIFA’s Zurich headquarters, then-president Sepp Blatter — with the dramatic pause of a man who knew full well the magnitude of his actions — took a card out of an envelope, read its contents and set football’s unstoppable wheels in motion.
That was 2,386 days ago now, and with only 365 days left the eyes of the world are beginning to turn to eastern Europe and the vast expanses of Russia. There’s a World Cup on the horizon, and judgement day is only one year away.
The biggest thing in Russia 2018’s favour is its proximity to Qatar 2022, a tournament that continues to unravel before qualification has even begun, and whose failure could have lasting consequences for one of world sport’s great events.
But to look past Russia is to wilfully overlook potential disaster. From issues with the stadiums to potential human rights violations, rampant hooliganism to Vladimir Putin himself, this is a tournament on a knife’s edge.
Lofty stadium dreams yet to become a reality
Sandwiched between the calamity of Brazil and the empty promises and horrendous working conditions of Qatar, there is a relieving air of confidence around Russia and its tournament infrastructure.
The four stadiums to be used during the Confederations Cup — Moscow’s Spartak Stadium, Kazan Arena, Sochi’s Fischt Stadium and St Petersburg’s Zenit Arena — are receiving finishing touches and have all passed their final inspections for use.
Russia is spending more than $15 billion on the tournament, with a significant portion of that put towards stadium building and redevelopment.
Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, which will host the final and tournament opener, is also nearing completion, and while many of the other stadiums resemble empty shells at present, FIFA insists everything is right on track.
But that is not to say it has all been smooth sailing, and it is certainly not to say the next year will not be beset with questions, scrutiny and crossed fingers.
Infantino’s letter said the North Koreans were working in “often appalling … conditions”, but believes those workers are no longer on site and confirmed FIFA and Russia’s Local Organising Committee had set up a ‘Decent Work Monitoring System’ to stay across future issues.
But the reports from Norway suggest the damage has been done. The Josimar investigation found a number of the North Korean men had been living in storage containers, and had been regularly underpaid.
Russia, naturally, struck back. Foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said the Norweigen FA was suffering from “acute anxiety”, and said the allegations were entirely “fake”.
“This theme is an instrument of political pressure and blackmail,” Ms Zakharov said in a statement, going on to say the claims were part of a scheme from the West to deter fans from coming to the tournament.
But despite Russia’s firm rebuttal, the story shook FIFA into action enough for it to significantly enhance its monitoring, which will now place additional emphasis on “accommodation outside the premises of the construction site”.
The Zenit Arena in St Petersburg has been under development since 2007 — well before Russia won the rights to the 2018 World Cup — and has been dogged by funding issues, but will be in use at the Confederations Cup.
Battle-trained hooligans predict ‘festival of violence’
What was your lasting image of Euro 2016? Was it Portugal’s victory, Ireland’s incredible rise, or Russian fans pummelling the English with chairs, flares and bare fists?
Euro 2016 was a tournament that threatened to be completely overshadowed by heinous acts of hooliganism off the pitch, but petered out into a semi-entertaining football showcase around the time Russia was eliminated.
The streets of Marseille became a bloodbath as Russian groups set upon English fans, more than 100 of which received injuries and two ended up in a coma.
At the time, UEFA threatened to kick Russia out of the tournament. Now, Infantino and FIFA say they are not worried about any follow-up incidents at the World Cup.
“I’m not concerned about trouble and violence in 2018. I have full confidence in Russian authorities, they are taking this matter very, very seriously,” Infantino said in February.
“They have been in contact with UEFA and French organisers to learn the lessons from France and this matter is being taken in the utmost seriousness by all.
“As part of this, the Russian government has put in place an ID system which will help us when it comes to any potential trouble.
“We need to be wary about spreading rumours about hooligans.”
But what if the rumours are genuinely harrowing?
A BBC documentary, aired earlier this year, spoke to many Russian hooligans about Euro 2016 and, more pertinently, about their plans for 2018.
The verdict? “A festival of violence” apparently awaits, with attacks on English fans “100 per cent guaranteed”.
There is a clear separation between Russia and FIFA when it comes to hooliganism, something best proven by Russian MP Igor Lebedev, whose solution to the problem was to make the fighting a spectator sport, pitting English and Russian fans against each other in a stadium in front of a crowd.
FIFA, clearly, is confident the hooligans’ threats are idle. It remains to be seen if that confidence is misguided.
Putin’s ‘image project’ comes in frosty political times
Of course, it is impossible to look at Russia without using the lens of current global events. After all, there is a reason US senator John McCain recently described Russia and President Vladimir Putin as a greater threat to world security than ISIS.
Among many American intelligence officials, there is a belief Russia has made attempts to tamper with foreign elections, with the US and France the most high-profile cases.
Barely a day passes by without a headline pertaining to Russia and Mr Putin, and many feel uneasy about the prospect of the country gaining such a significant platform while it continues to try to wield influence over the rest of the world.
Some have described the event as “an image project” for the President, in a similar way to how he used the Sochi Winter Olympics to project an image of stability amid a period of financial and societal turmoil.
And of course, image is everything to Mr Putin. Just this week, another prominent critic has been imprisoned and public protests turned violent.
Though, if you are the glass-half-full sort, Mr Putin’s determination to portray his country in the best possible manner could at least lead to a successful tournament.
And in an attempt to make life as easy as possible for visiting fans, a visa-free system has been signed into law, meaning those coming from overseas need only sign up to receive a “fan ID” rather than go through rigorous immigration processes.
“We pay a great deal of attention to our foreign guests, we will provide them with many places, we are also working with fans and with their associations,” Mr Putin told Infantino in May.
“We are going to do everything in our power to ensure that the facilities, the accommodation, the condition of stadiums in Russia, the services that are going to be provided to the athletes, to the fans and to everyone else are at the highest level possible.”
Perhaps underlining the significance of the event to Mr Putin, December’s draw for the tournament will be held at the Kremlin itself.
‘It will be really ugly’: Russian football’s history of racism can’t be erased
“There’s no racism in Russia, because it doesn’t exist.”
These words were said by Alexei Smertin in 2015. In February 2017, Smertin was selected to head an investigation into racism in Russian football.
Despite Smertin’s highly-criticised 2015 claim, Russian football has long been marred by persistent allegations of racism from fans.
In 2013, Manchester City complained after Yaya Toure was subjected to monkey chants from the crowd during a Champions League game against CSKA Moscow. There have been numerous instances of bananas being thrown onto the pitch by fans, while Brazilian striker Hulk has said he has been on the receiving end of racist chants from the crowd in “almost every game” he played for Zenit St Petersburg.
“If [racism] happens in the World Cup, it will be really gross and really ugly,” Hulk said in 2015.
“Usually it happens when Russian clubs play and it doesn’t come out to the world and the world doesn’t know about this.
“I must say that almost every game I see this happening. I used to get angry, but now I see this doesn’t help, so I just send a kiss to our fans and try not to get angry.”
While Smertin now says he will “put every effort into keeping racism and discrimination out of the story of football in my country”, the words are not reflected by FIFA.
In September last year, FIFA disbanded its anti-racism task force saying it had “completely fulfilled its temporary mission”.
Problem solved? We will soon find out, but any such incidents would horrendously sully the event.
Russian national team at lowest ebb
Last year’s European Championships offered Russia the opportunity to showcase its ability as a footballing nation, separate from the politics of the country or the problems it would face in organising a World Cup.
It badly missed this opportunity, taking only one point from its three group games and offering a series of abject performances.
Fans were more than frustrated, and an online petition calling for the entire team to be disbanded demanded the RFU “break up the Russian team in its current form as it has failed to deliver”.
If the threats from an angry online fan were easily dismissed for players and coaches, perhaps the words of Mr Putin himself were more difficult to ignore.
Having lost a friendly to Qatar 2-1, Mr Putin said “to be honest, we haven’t seen beautiful play from the national team for a long time”.
Russia is currently placed at 61 on FIFA’s official rankings — the lowest it has sat since the rankings were created — below Australia, Uzbekistan and Panama. If it had not been granted automatic access to the tournament as host, it seems unlikely Russia would have qualified for the 2018 tournament.
While the pressure on the home nation will not be anywhere near as severe as it was on Brazil in 2014, a national embarrassment will not be tolerated. Russia’s Confederations Cup performances will be closely scrutinised.
Source : abc.net.au