Russia World Cup 2018: Clouds still hanging over Fifa and its tournament host with just over a year to go

 
Joe Hall
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A test event is held at the new Zenit Arena in St Petersburg (Source: Getty)

The Confederations Cup is normally a moment for football fans’ excitement to begin in earnest.

Kicking off in Russia on Saturday, the competition marks a year until the country stages the next World Cup and offers a chance both for supporters to gauge the quality of potential contenders and for governing body Fifa to test the readiness of the host nation.

In 2013, a Neymar-inspired Brazil won the tournament and got mouths watering for the arrival of the football world in a country obsessed with beauty in the beautiful game.

Yet since Russia was declared 2018 World Cup host, the tournament has been hit by accusations of bid corruption and concerns about its safety for fans.

With the tournament now on the horizon, is Russia ready to host a successful World Cup?

Stadiums

The tournament, which begins on 14 June 2018 and runs for a month, is being played out across 12 stadiums and 11 cities, separated by an average distance of 400 miles.

Read more: Football stadiums of the future - forthcoming arenas from around the world including at the Russia World Cup

Eight of those 12 arenas are still in construction and have been beset by spiralling costs, but Fifa president Gianni Infantino maintains that he is satisfied with progress, while acknowledging that Russia still has plenty of work to do between now and next year.

“We certainly cannot just sit down and rest and say everything is perfect,” Infantino said.

“We all well know — it is not only a Russian thing, but for the whole world — that bureaucracy sometimes takes a bit of time and there are always hurdles that you did not foresee before.”

Russia announced earlier this year that its spending on the tournament — largely on stadiums — had risen by 19.1bn rubles (£260m), bringing its total cost to 638.8bn rubles (£8.7bn).

Zenit St. Petersburg's 68,000 capacity Krestovsky Stadium, which took over a decade to complete and became a symbol of rising World Cup costs, has struggled following its opening.

After just two games, Zenit were forced to return to their old ground as the newly installed pitch was in such bad condition.

Days before the Confederations Cup was due to start, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report criticising conditions for workers on the stadiums, which include long delays in payment and sub-zero conditions.

According to the trade union Building and Wood Workers' International, at least 17 workers have died working on stadium construction projects for next year's tournament.

In response Fifa said it was "going beyond what any sports federation has done to date to identify and address issues related to human rights".

Commercial

If 2018 is to be a costly enterprise for Russia, it has the potential to put a similar strain on organisers Fifa.

Read more: Fifa corruption charges keeps sponsors away

The World Cup is by far Fifa’s biggest revenue generator, largely thanks to the plethora of brands ready to throw money at the governing body for the privilege of attaching their name to the most-watched sporting event on the planet.

Fifa generated a staggering £2.9bn in revenue from the 2014 tournament — 85 per cent of the group’s overall revenue between 2011 and 2014 — with £2.4bn of that coming from sales of broadcasting rights and sponsorships.

Confederations Cup 2017

When? 17 June - 2 July

Who? Two groups of four.

Group A: Russia, New Zealand, Portugal, Mexico.

Group B: Cameroon, Chile, Australia, Germany.

Why them? The tournament is always made up of the reigning World Cup holders, future World Cup host and the six continental champions.

But the sponsorship stream appears to have dried up since the boon of Brazil.

According to accounts published earlier this year, Fifa expects it will have made a £700m loss in the two years since a number of high-ranking officials were arrested by the FBI on corruption charges and president Sepp Blatter was banned from football in 2015.

Fifa currently has just 12 sponsors lined up for the tournament — way off its 24 target figure and far behind the 20 it had locked up a year before the Brazil World Cup — and has only secured a handful of partners since the corruption crisis unfurled, with the majority locked into long-term deals.

Local Russian companies have been some of the least obliging, with only the Moscow-based Alfa-Bank taking up the lowest tier sponsorship offering for a “national supporter”, while state-run TV channels have so far refused to match Fifa’s asking price for TV rights.

A deal to show this year's Confederations Cup was struck at the last minute earlier this week.

Fan safety

Excitement Mounts As England Prepare To Take On Russia In The Euros
An England fan is left unconscious in Marseille where they clashed with Russian hooligans at Euro 2016 (Source: Getty)

Russian hooligans were blamed for scenes of violence erupting inside Marseille’s Velodrome Stadium and on the city’s seafront at Euro 2016, amplifying existing fears that such issues could be a feature of the World Cup next year.

A BBC2 documentary broadcast earlier this year showed Russian hooligans forecasting a “festival of violence” at the tournament.

Although pronouncements such as the “well done lads! Keep it up!” message issued by Igor Lebedev, deputy chairman of the Russian parliament and board member of the Russian football association, to Russian fans in France last summer do little to comfort potential travellers — there has been a crackdown on organised hooligan groups from Russian authorities.

In April president Vladimir Putin signed a bill into law that would impose harsher punishments on fans for misbehaving.

Concerns over racism in Russian football — latest available figures indicate there were 92 incidents of discriminatory banners chanting in the 2014/15 season alone — have hardly been dispelled by the appointment of former Chelsea midfielder Alexei Smertin to the role of anti-racism and discrimination inspector.

In 2015 Smertin insisted “there is no racism in Russia, because it doesn’t exist” and added “10 years ago some fans may have given a banana to black guys — it was just for fun”.

Confederations Cup audition

The extent to which the various concerns surrounding the Russia World Cup will still be causing furrowed brows by the time of the tournament will be clearer once the Confederations Cup comes to a close.

A success could help Fifa remind wayward sponsors of international football's festive appeal at the expense of its own controversies.

For that to happen, Russia's insistences that it has a handle on violent fan groups and discriminatory behaviour will need to borne out over the two week tournament.

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