Isolated Russia aims to bring football to the fore at World Cup
An isolated Russia throws open its doors in a week for a World Cup full of glitz and glamour designed to bring in the hosts from the cold.
The month-long celebration of the world’s most popular sport has been haunted by fears over racism and violence as well as diplomatic spats.
But Vladimir Putin has left no stone unturned making sure the biggest — and most controversy-laden — event Russia has seen since Moscow’s 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics seduces a sceptical world.
Twelve sparkling stadiums in 11 cities spanning the European portion of the world’s largest country are ready after getting their last licks of paint.
And superstars ranging from Brazil’s Neymar to Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo are all healed up and rearing to fight for the right to hoist the glittering Jules Rimet Trophy on July 15.
Almost every second person on Earth tuned into the last edition of the spectacular in Brazil in 2014.
That tournament saw the hosts suffer a traumatic 7-1 beating by Germany in the semi-finals that left a nation obsessed by football in shock.
Eventual champions Germany and Brazil again top a list of favourites that also includes Spain and past winners Argentina and France.
Russia’s chances of doing something special are modest. The hosts are the second-lowest ranked team of the 32 in the final and are riven by internal squabbles and injuries.
Putin counters that Russia will come out tops simply by pulling off the most expensive World Cup ever staged while struggling under the weight of international sanctions.
“The organisers,” said Putin when asked to pick this year’s likely winner.
Sanctions and boycotts
The West’s penalties are a response to an ever more aggressive foreign policy Putin has pushed in the eight years since securing the hosting rights over England in a vote tainted by bribery charges.
Russia has annexed Crimea from Ukraine and defied the West by unleashing a bombing campaign in support of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
The US intelligence community believes Moscow meddled in America’s 2016 presidential election. Its British counterpart says Russia used a nerve agent in England to try and kill former double agent Sergei Skripal.
A doping scandal that got Russia banned from the Olympics and forced its athletes to compete under a neutral flag at last winter’s Pyeongchang Games completed a picture of relations in utter tatters.
Yet Putin has emerged from all this looking as strong as ever.
The Kremlin also does little to hide its pleasure at seeing the effective failure of efforts by some in England and eastern Europe to organise a diplomatic boycott of Putin’s party.
England will not be sending diplomats or royalty to the opening ceremony in protest over the Skripal case.
Sweden and Iceland along with a few others may follow suit by keeping their prime ministers and heads of state home.
But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last week he expected to see a “heavy traffic of guests at the highest level” coming to matches.
Racism and riots
Russia’s problems do not end in the high-brow world of international relations.
The bloody beating English fans got at the hands of nearly 200 Russian thugs at Euro 2016 in France has plagued preparations as much as any dispute with the West.
Neo-Nazi hooligans who organise mass fights in forests and chant racist slurs at players have lorded over Russian stadiums for years.
The anti-discrimination network Fare said Russia’s football federation was making matters worse by punishing those who reacted to racist abuse “while ignoring the perpetrators”.
Security services have either locked up or checked in on hundreds of hoodlums to make sure they do nothing to tarnish Russia’s image in the coming weeks.
The scare tactics have worked. Some football gang members say they will be skipping town once the games begin to avoid getting rounded up.
“However, we do not have as much confidence in the prevention of non-violent racist incidents (at the World Cup), despite the many well intentioned reassurances,” Fare said in a report issued last week.
Neymar and Neuer
Yet the world’s focus in the final week before kickoff will not be on politics or Russia’s underworld but things like Neymar’s right foot.
Brazil’s latest heir apparent to Pele sparked national panic by undergoing surgery on a broken bone near his toe on March 3.
The 26-year-old’s return could not have been more triumphant as he scored a fine goal in a 2-0 defeat of Croatia on Sunday that left even coach Tite stunned.
Germany will also be delighted to have seen talismanic goalkeeper Manuel Neuer come back from an eight-month absence with a foot problem of his own.
He looked as confident as ever in a 2:1 loss to Austria on Saturday and was included in the final squad.
And Russia will be watching with curiosity as Egypt’s emerging superstar Mohamed Salah recovers from a left shoulder injury he suffered in Liverpool’s 3:1 Champions League final loss to Real Madrid.
The timeline set out by Egypt’s football bosses suggests Salah might be in the lineup against the hosts in the second round on June 19.
The two nations will likely vie with Saudi Arabia for the second knockout qualification spot in a group that includes two-time World Cup winners Uruguay.
An early exit would spell disaster for Russia — still waiting to make their first Last 16 of a World Cup since more successful Soviet times.
But coach Stanislav Cherchesov said he was “confident” his men would do well enough to let him keep his job.