Before Qatar answers World Cup questions Russia has some of its own

Author: GARY MEENAGHANWed, 2017-08-23 03:00ID: 1503431791267340500SAINT PETERSBURG: Controversy surrounding the 2022 World Cup in Qatar may have claimed most of the headlines in recent months but next year’s showpiece in Russia is facing troubles of its own.We are now fewer than 10 months away from the kick-off, when on June 14 the whistle will blow to start the biggest sporting spectacle outside of the Olympics. And following the controversy that has preceded it, it is fair to say all eyes will be firmly focused on Russia, and not just on the pitch.From worries about racism, human rights abuses, terrorism, doping and dodgy deals to secure the hosting of the event, next summer will see Russia in the political and sporting spotlight. This summer’s Confederations Cup, which predictably ended in another German triumph, provided some indication as to what can be expected both on and off the pitch at Eastern Europe’s first global football showpiece.On the pitch, the tournament — which was first held in Saudi Arabia, when it was called the King Fahd Cup, before the event was used by FIFA as a reconnaissance run for the following year’s World Cup — was notable for Russia’s own national team becoming the first host to fail to progress through the group stage.Whether the Russia team can improve enough in the next 12 months to avoid joining 2010 host South Africa as the only nation to be eliminated at the first stage of their own competition, remains to be seen.The Russian Federation as a host country, however, showed far more potential than its national side, with the eight-team tournament passing without a hitch. Before the event much had been written about racism, hooliganism, terrorism, slave labor and even an unsigned TV-rights deal that could have ended with Russians not being able to watch their own tournament.Yet organizers’ steps to prevent violent or racist incidents — including a scheme whereby all ticket-holders must display their ID on a lanyard, officially blacklisting 200 fans, and a three-step procedure allowing FIFA to stop, suspend or abandon matches should referees witness discriminatory behavior — appeared to work.“We welcome everyone,” said Maksim Titov, a local fan who attended his country’s opening game against New Zealand. “The Russian fans who come to these games are different from local league games, where maybe it is more dangerous. Here is more families and the people just want to enjoy and show the world that our country is great.”Authorities, however, were forced to dismiss a Human Rights Watch report that said 17 workers had died on World Cup stadium sites and that those employed faced “exploitation and labor abuses”. Media accusations that North Korean laborers worked on the Saint Petersburg stadium in conditions similar to “prisoners of war” were also refuted. Vitaly Mutko, the deputy prime minister, said he was happy for media to tour any of the seven stadiums that remain under construction.Security, already heightened by a bomb attack in April that killed 14 people, also proved tight around host cities, with increased police presence and stricter baggage searches at metro stations. And six days before the start of the tournament, a deal was agreed with state-controlled Channel One and Match TV, enabling fans to watch at home or in an official Fifa Fan Fest, which broadcast games live on a giant screen.Yet with the predicted issues proving unproblematic for the hosts, new difficulties arose. On the pitch, FIFA’s trialling of video assistant referees (VAR) raised more confusion than clarification with complaints that decisions were taking too long and that fans inside the stadium were unaware of what was being discussed between the referee on the pitch and the video assistants watching replays in a nearby studio.The controversy continued off the field too following the full publication of a report that shone new light on the scandalous bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups back in June. While Russia emerged relatively unscathed from the Garcia Report, destroyed computers and President Vladimir Putin personally meeting six of FIFA’s 22 voters before the crucial December 2010 elections does not build confidence.Meanwhile, revelations that FIFA is investigating whether Russia’s entire 23-man World Cup 2014 squad were part of the country’s state-supported doping program has cast further doubts on the suitability of the country as a host nation. Officials, again, have opted for denial, with Alexei Sorokin, the head of Russia 2018’s organizing committee, calling it “made-up news” — this despite FIFA’s confirmation that the investigation is ongoing.
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