MOSCOW: The World Cup draw in the Kremlin on Friday launches Russia’s bid to turn a page on its history of football hooliganism and racism while warding off a terror threat linked to Moscow’s intervention in Syria.
The success of the tournament is also a matter of personal pride for Vladimir Putin after the Russian strongman helped wrest the June 14-July 15 competition from England in an ugly 2010 battle before relations with the West dramatically collapsed over Ukraine.
It is an $11.5-billion (9.7-billion-euro) gamble for which many of the 11 host cities underwent their first major post-Soviet facelifts with the potential to create the same “white elephant” stadiums and hotels left behind by the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games.
And the 2,500 kilometres (1,550 miles) between the westernmost stadium in Kaliningrad near Poland and easterly one in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg — the same distance separating Paris and Moscow — will test the fans’ resolve.
Monkey chants, hooligans wars
Displays of racism in Russian football multiplied after foreign players arrived once the Iron Curtain fell and the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991.
Brazilian striker Hulk said he heard monkey chants at “almost every match” when he led Zenit Saint Petersburg to a title and two second-place finishes between 2012 and 2016.
The idea that visiting players might face similar treatment at the World Cup prompted FIFA president Gianni Infantino to promise to halt or abandon matches in case of any hint of abuse from the crowd.
“It is absolutely not tolerable and we will be very, very firm on that,” Infantino said on Monday.
Russia’s football governing body has been trying to clean up its act and organisers say they recorded no racist episodes when they hosted the Confederations Cup — the World Cup warmup — this year.
But intertwined with that scourge is hooliganism — a culture deeply rooted due to some clubs’ affiliation with rival wings of the armed forces as well as the inherent ill will between Moscow and the largely neglected provinces.
Hooliganism experts say Russia’s powerful FSB security service has cracked down hard on football gangs and blacklisted many of their leaders as the World Cup nears.
Russia is also using Fan ID cards requiring visitors and locals alike to undergo security checks before they can enter a stadium.
Authorities will particularly want to avoid the scenes in Marseille during Euro 2016 when Russian hooligans beat up England fans in bloody clashes that one participant from Moscow said felt “like winning against Brazil”.
Militants and bombings
The threat of terror is ever-present and potentially growing because of Russia’s military support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
A Saint Petersburg metro bombing that killed 15 in April was just the latest of the numerous strikes to have hit much of Russia since the 1990s.
Yet the estimated 2,900 Russian militants who have fought alongside the Islamic State group and are now making their way back home are not the only danger.
Southern host city Volgograd fell victim to two suicide bombings and a bus blast perpetrated in late 2013 by North Caucasus militants that killed 39 people. The entire city has since been on heightened alert.
Volgograd Mayor Andrei Kosolapov said canine police units already check every bus and train carriage daily for potential explosives.
“Plus, we have installed, and are continuing to install, video cameras where — online — we can monitor every single street,” he said.
Playing under Putin’s gaze
Perhaps the biggest concern to Russians themselves is the fate of their team — a squad that has so often underperformed despite having Europe’s largest potential talent pool.
Coach Stanislav Cherchesov admitted that Russia’s inability to win a single match at Euro 2016 or the 2014 World Cup left fans “feeling certain pessimism” about their chances.
“I would like to think that things are a bit different now,” he told the Championat.com news site.
But Cherchesov quickly cautioned against putting too much pressure on the team should Russia get drawn against some of the smaller nations.
“There are teams that look weaker, but is that any guarantee of making it out of the group?” he asked.
The current squad’s problem is twofold: they have no stars and must perform under the stern gaze of a black-belt judo president who does not take losing lightly.
“Of course I hope our national team wins. I am really looking forward to that,” then-prime minister Putin said after Russia was awarded the right to host The Beautiful Game’s top tournament.