Russia is hosting the FIFA Confederations Cup tournament through July 2 as a test for how it handles the 2018 World Cup.
But preparations have not been without controversy as upgrades on the Saint Petersburg Zenit stadium burst several budget projections amid allegations of corruption and North Korean forced laborers.
“I'm more than sure that it's impossible to handle the big construction site ... without illegal workers,” says Russian sports commentator Fyodor Pogorelov. “So, I wasn't surprised when I read the stories.”
“As for corruption at this sports venue,” he adds, "I would say that it's a monument to corruption in modern Russia.”
A vice governor was arrested in November for kickbacks from contractors while Russian media reported millions of dollars have disappeared from the project’s budget.
“The issue of workers rights was belatedly addressed by FIFA and is a major issue, in general, here in Russia,” says Russia-based sports specialist and columnist Alan Moore.
“Everyone deserves security of pay and safe conditions,” adds Moore, “[but] neither Russian footballers nor North Korean [or Central Asian] laborers are sure of this.”
‘Quite a bit of work’ remains
Moore says fans seem happy with Russia’s Confederations Cup preparations. “For the World Cup, however, there still remains quite a bit of work,” he says, “from further clamping down on rowdy elements, using the build-up to reduce discrimination and finish at least three of the stadiums.”
Serious concerns about Russian football hooliganism were raised at England’s opening Euro 2016 game in Marseille, France, when well-organized mobs of Russian fans fought pitched street battles.
Concerns about racism that have dogged some Russian football fan clubs, were raised just a month before the Confederations Cup when a few Russians turned out in blackface for the Carnaval Sochi Fest parade just weeks before the city was to host Cameroon. City organizers denied any racist intention and said the parade, which also had people dressed in various ethnic and native costumes, was meant to show inclusion.
The controversies over spending, corruption, and discrimination have drawn comparisons to Russia’s Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, which cost an estimated $50 billion and were marred by its passing a law against “gay propaganda” just months earlier.
“The FIFA tournaments will have a much longer legacy (if done right) than Sochi ever could,” says Moore. “Winter Olympic Games are niche and don't have the impact and spotlight of a Confederations Cup, let alone the World Cup.”
Although the final spending for the FIFA tournaments has yet to be tallied, Moore says hosting the games will be worth the cost if Russian football is upgraded, it brings the country together, opens Russia to the world, and leaves a positive legacy.
“It will be worth the cost if, in five years time we can look back and say there were no discriminatory incidents in Russian football and that a dialogue has begun amongst people for what they want for their country,” he says. “Football is about dreaming, so now is time for Russia to dream big!”
The home team
Russia’s win Saturday against New Zealand in the first match of the Confederations Cup may have boosted the dreaming for the tournament host’s national team, but has been downplayed by sports analysts who say Wednesday’s match against Portugal will be more telling.
The game at Zenit stadium ended 2-0 and was watched by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
It gives the team confidence, Moore says, “A loss, in front of the president, in his hometown, in the stadium that cost so much and took so long to complete, would have sickened the country toward, at least, football.”
Russia’s national team was ranked 63rd before the tournament, while New Zealand was 95 on FIFA’s list of 206 teams.
Pogorelov says Russia has not played enough high-ranking teams to test its skills.
“Only the game against Portugal, European champions, will tell us anything about [the] actual state of [the] Russian national team. It's a mystery team,” says Pogorelov.
Russia will play number eight-ranked Portugal on Wednesday at Moscow’s Spartak stadium.
Tough odds for hosts
Sports analyst Valery Vinokurov says Russia stands little chance against Portugal.
“The Portuguese and Mexicans showed a game of much higher class than the Russian national team has been showing for quite a considerable time. If someone assesses based on the class of the game, the Russians have no chance. But football is such a category where anything might happen. And there are innumerable cases when weaker teams won competing with stronger ones thanks to proper discipline and luck.”
The skills of Russia’s star players and Portugal’s are incomparable, says Pogorelov. “Totally football-wise, there is nothing to do against Cristiano Ronaldo. He is top of the top.” But he says the Russian team is showing ambition and passion not seen in previous years.
Russia’s prospects for advancing in the Confederations Cup look good after their opening win, says Moore.
“Statistically good. Since 1997 only two teams who won their opening game in the Confederations Cup failed to make the semi-finals.”