The recent World Cup in Brazil managed to thrive despite being neck-deep in an ocean of controversy but, as attention turns to 2018, is Russia going to be submerged?
International opinion towards Russia has been increasingly negative ever since the Ukrainian crisis began, and there are more issues for the Russians to deal with as the spotlight hovers over Moscow.
Russia’s last ‘mega-event’, the Winter Olympics, staged in the southern resort of Sochi, was held to be a sporting success but fell short in terms of the quantity of money spent – it was the most expensive Olympics in history at $51bn, beating the previous mark set by Beijing ($44bn) in 2008.
As with all mega-events, Sochi attracted huge media coverage and, inevitably, there was some digging into its inner workings.
What that coverage eventually uncovered was enormously damaging for Russia.
Reports began to surface of costs being driven skyward by corruption, there was criticism of Russia’s newly-passed anti-homosexual law, an established culture of racism and even terrorist threats.
The World Cup is the biggest sporting event on the planet and will garner even more worldwide attention than that of the Winter Olympics.
Russia will be under microscopic analysis and the early suggestions are that 2018 will be an extremely unpopular World Cup.
Firstly, there is an inherent problem with racism in Russian football – particularly so in Saint Petersburg, where local club Zenit are supported by a large faction of fans named ‘Landscrona.’
Among Landscrona’s horrible manifesto were the declarations that “dark-skinned players are all but forced down Zenit’s throat” and that homosexual players would be “unworthy of our great city.”
To the club’s credit, they are determined to weed out supporters of Landscrona and have signed Hulk and Axel Witsel in the past three years – both of whom are black.
Last season, CSKA Moscow were forced to play behind closed doors after their fans racially abused Manchester City’s Ivory Coast midfielder Yaya Toure. Toure later claimed that black players may boycott Russia’s World Cup in protest.
Instances of racism are common in Russia and there will undoubtedly be more in 2018 – but will FIFA act swiftly to punish those responsible?
Above all this Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the subsequent violence, has served to further weaken the perception of their country worldwide.
Things have become even worse for President Vladimir Putin as it transpired that MH17 – a passenger plane shot down in Ukraine, killing 298 people – was blown up by a Buk-launched missile supplied to pro-Russian rebels by Moscow.
Putin’s handling of the tragedy has drawn heavy international condemnation and has even led to questions about the viability of the inaugural Russian Grand Prix in October.
Even so, the event will seemingly go ahead after Bernie Ecclestone, F1 supremo, rubbished concerns over the race in an attempt to negate the negative publicity surrounding it.
Discrimination against lesbian, gay and transgender people in Russia is another major concern – with some petitions to strip Russia of hosting rights attracting thousands of signatures.
These controversies are all bound to dominate the build-up to the World Cup, but there have also been worries over the cost of building new arenas for 2018.
Out of the permitted 12 stadiums, a total of nine new stadiums will be built, while three more will be upgraded or rebuilt. Unlike Brazil, construction of these stadiums is progressing well.
New infrastructure across the country will also be built and, like most mega-events, talk of an enduring legacy was a key component of the Russian World Cup bidding project.
The new stadiums and infrastructure will come at a potentially crippling cost, however.
Economic forecasts for Russia are worrying, with the country dicing with recession and Putin’s political opposition calling the $20bn budget allocated to the World Cup “unsustainable.”
On the pitch, Russia’s national team is one of the more experienced – it is rare that young players break through.
However, a poor performance in Brazil, which saw Russia crash out in the group stage, has prompted a change in approach with young players set to be given more opportunities.
There are high hopes for Dzhamaldin Khodzhaniyazov, a swashbuckling young defender, while Denis Cheryshev, a winger on Real Madrid’s books, could also make a significant impact in 2018.
So, although it is unlikely that Russia will have its right to host the 2018 World Cup revoked, it can expect an enormous amount of scorn from the international community for its discriminatory habits.
The question is can they change, and will FIFA make them mend their ways? Unfortunately, the answers to those questions are shrouded in doubt.
Perhaps the only respectable reason Russia deserves to host the 2018 World Cup is because it won the most votes to do so, leading many to arrive at the melancholic conclusion that footballing democracy has been too kind.
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