MOSCOW — When Lionel Messi and Argentina stepped out at the Luzhniki Stadium in November, it felt like a dress rehearsal for Russia 2018’s dream final. A capacity crowd filed past the monolithic statue of Vladimir Lenin, through the impeccably preserved Soviet-era facade and into plush, renovated stands. Lining up on the pitch were, in one half, the best player in the world and his teammates; opposite them a team representing the host nation whose fans displayed a banner reading “Together we are a family”.
Messi failed to score and Russia, willing but limited, were beaten by a Sergio Aguero goal.
Rather more deflating was the post-match sight of supporters queuing in their thousands to access one of the three train stations nearby, corralled by the authorities into a line that took more than two hours to clear. While it gave rise to little more than frustration, it did speak of a process yet to be properly thought through.
That is what these dry runs are for and that, essentially, is where we are with 100 days until the World Cup kicks off with Russia facing Saudi Arabia.
It will be all right on the night, certainly where the games’ staging and televised spectacle are concerned — nobody, despite the usual flickers of concern about a host country’s preparations, can seriously doubt that. The venues will be slick, the choreographing careful, the football up and down in quality. So far, so normal.
But Russia 2018 remains a tournament beset by more localised queries and concerns than most, as well as one or two fundamental issues that may shape the future face of an entire sport.
The on-pitch spectacle will almost certainly take place against a backdrop of conversation about VAR (video assistant referees), whose adoption for the World Cup was rubber-stamped by IFAB on Saturday. The technology has generated appalling reviews from fans and media alike in England, where Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino was among those to rail against the “embarrassing” delays it caused during Spurs’ FA Cup win over Rochdale in late February.
Extended stoppages in play, mixed with a lack of clear communication to supporters about the nature of the decisions being made, have been the biggest gripes — and there is a sense that some referees have used it more frequently than simply for the resolution of “clear and obvious” errors, which is VAR’s main purpose.
VAR has also been trialled elsewhere — the Bundesliga and Serie A are two examples — with varying ups and downs. Its deployment at the 2017 Confederations Cup brought mixed results, too. Understandably, there is palpable apprehension about its deployment in Russia. Not least because the World Cup, more than ever, faces a fight to be popular and relevant: club football’s supremacy is absolute these days and the decision, made in 2010, to host the next two editions of the tournament in Russia and Qatar did little to enhance the sport’s accessibility.
The world’s best football isn’t the World Cup — it’s competitions like the Champions League. It’s why Neymar’s fractured metatarsal, which will keep him out for a minimum of two months, will be such a big storyline: it feeds into the fact that any element of confusion and delay to proceedings will cause people to switch off from the action in Russia.
There is also the more practical and pressing matter of the engagement of supporters on the ground. FIFA have been keen to trumpet healthy ticket demand figures, with applications totalling 8.4 million globally by the end of January. Yet only 57,957 of those had come from England, usually one of the best-supported countries at a tournament, suggesting that, despite the fact Russia will be more accessible this summer than at any point in its history, it will struggle to change the perception that it’s not exactly an attractive destination for football fans.
Against that, there are some more encouraging figures: the U.S. and Netherlands, neither of whom qualified for the tournament, provided 87,052 and 71,096 requests, respectively.
It was the last thing organisers needed, then, when supporters of Spartak Moscow and Athletic Bilbao brawled in the Spanish city before the sides’ Europa League meeting on February 22. A policeman tragically died of a heart attack after a flare was thrown his way during the clashes. There is no suggestion Spartak fans were responsible for his death but, after a series of Champions League meetings between Russian and English sides that went off without serious incident, this was an unwelcome return to the headlines Russia generated at Euro 2016 in France.
The ghosts of Marseille, and the appalling violence around England’s clash with Russia, still linger, giving rise to fear that has never quite gone away. In fact, Russia has cracked down considerably on hooliganism within its own borders and the prospect of danger around the stadiums seems remote. (The Russia 2018 Local Organising Committee had not responded to requests for comment on this and other topics at the time of this article’s publication.)
One ultra, who follows the Samara-based team Krylia Sovetov and has links to some of those who participated in the Marseille violence, told ESPN FC that the intention among past troublemakers is to lie low.
“The tournament will pass without big excesses,” said the ultra, who spoke on the condition of anyonminity. “Many of our ultras are banned, including me. But you will see how our police and special forces work. They react much better and faster than in Bilbao or Marseille.”
Another ultra, who supports Zenit St Petersburg, reinforced that view.
It bolstered the impression among a group of ultras I encountered in a Samara bar last July during the Confederations Cup. The message was conciliatory: we will welcome and drink beer with anyone who wants to visit us, as long as nobody acts violently towards us. It was not quite an unconditional peace pledge, but at least there is an acknowledgement that Russia’s feared security operation — led by the FSB, effectively the KGB’s successor — will make no compromises.
The present domestic season has seen police act with force towards fans on several occasions, notably during a high-profile match between Zenit St Petersburg and Spartak Moscow in August. But the chances of miscreants getting anywhere near a stadium this summer are remote in themselves: all supporters, domestic or international, are required to apply for a “Fan ID” for which rigorous background checks are made, also helping to nullify the risk of touting.
Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, last month signed a law rubber-stamping steep fines for those caught illegally selling tickets for the World Cup. Putin himself has kept largely quiet in relation to this summer and there is no mistaking the nature of his priorities. “We must hold the 2018 World Cup at the highest level, and first of all ensure the maximum safety of athletes and fans. Of course, in this task you have a key role,” he told the country’s Interior Ministry board at the end of February.
“I do not doubt that you will act correctly during the tournament in any situation that arises, in strict accordance with the law. Your clear and competent work directly impacts on how this event will take place and the image of our country.”
Russia has also moved to alleviate concerns about racism and homophobia at the tournament, although a law passed in 2013 banning “gay propaganda” still exists, painting an appalling picture when Chechnya — whose capital, Grozny, will host Egypt’s World Cup training base — has allegedly been complicit in suppressing political opinion and discriminating against women and sexual minorities.
Alexey Smertin, the anti-discrimination chief of Russia 2018, has played down any concerns and says the atmosphere around World Cup venues will be friendly. “It definitely won’t be stressful and we let everyone feel comfortable and safe in our country,” he told the BBC.
The majority of supporters are likely to make whistle-stop visits to host cities and remain in FIFA-run area around the stadia, reducing the risk to potential danger or unpleasantness. Yet those not travelling with official groups may find themselves hamstrung by the exorbitant prices charged for hotel rooms and apartments in smaller, less tourist-friendly cities such as Saransk and Volgograd, where England will take on Tunisia.
The Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda recently visited Saransk, where they were quoted up to £1,275 a night to rent modest Soviet-era apartments. A shortage of hotel rooms, and subsequent demand, is one reason; another is the fact that Portugal, and Cristiano Ronaldo, will play Iran there and that comes with a premium.
But the issue is a serious one, particularly if it risks supporters being forced into unsafe or unlicensed arrangements. Local authorities have so far been slow to act; the hope seems to be that, as the tournament nears, they come to their senses.
Saransk is one of a number of venues whose stadium — new, gleaming and seemingly far too big for the modest local side it will house from next seaspm — has struggled against deadlines. The most glaring is Samara’s dramatic Cosmos Arena, which is not expected to be ready until mid-March and will not hold a test event until April 28, seven weeks before it hosts its first World Cup tie.
The path here has, for many cities and venues, been fraught with financial and logistical issues (plans for the Cosmos Arena, to take one example, were scaled down from an 80 million high dome when costs became too high, although its 65m replacement will be striking enough).
But you can’t help feel this is a tournament Russia would like to get out of its hair. The government cut its World Cup budget by £340m — to around £7.4bn — in 2015 and, although the event’s scope has accordingly shrunk, it still appears a financial millstone in difficult times.
“This is a reflection on the difficult economic situation but it should not have a negative effect on the event itself,” said FIFA representative Dmitry Yefimov at the time. But concerns about expenditure versus the benefits of any long-term legacy have never really gone away.
It was a rare piece of good news for the country’s sporting scene when, on Feb. 28, its membership of the International Olympic Committee was restored. The state-sponsored doping scandal has ravaged its reputation and, although it has not touched the country’s football players, has kept any positive developments out of the limelight. The World Cup itself did not escape unscathed: Vitaly Mutko stepped down as chief executive of its organising committee in December after being cited in a series of reports into the issue.
Russia’s place in the global political landscape has changed since 2010, too, and its perception among certain other states — especially in Europe — is one of an unpredictable and unreliable partner. The national team itself has improved slightly under Stanislav Cherchesov and, having been dealt a favourable group-stage draw, may gather enough momentum to belie its 61st place in FIFA’s world rankings; of the 31 other qualifiers, only Saudi Arabia, at 64, are below them.
Eventually that is what the tournament’s broader success may come down to, assuming the bare necessities like safety and infrastructure overcome existing concerns. Beyond the biggest clubs and cities, this is not a country with a voracious matchgoing culture; a survey by DW.com last year showed that only 17 percent of its inhabitants regard themselves as long-term football fans, with a third watching from time to time. They will need convincing that the event in front of them is special — whether it features Messi, Neymar, a resurgent national team or a group stage battle between Panama and Tunisia.
Tickets for locals are priced from £16 in the group stage but rise dramatically after that, with second-round tickets starting at £29. For many, these are not trifling sums; as recently as 2014 the average monthly wage in Mordovia, the republic in which Saransk resides, was just £250. Empty seats at less glamorous fixtures will be among FIFA’s worst nightmares.
Despite the lingering question marks, Russia’s tournament could be in a worse place at this stage. The biggest job over the next 100 days is to convince people of exactly that.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.