The Confederations Cup, the quadrennial dress rehearsal for soccer’s World Cup, opened Saturday in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg.
It’s not a milestone many find worth celebrating.
The start of the two-week, eight-nation tournament is FIFA’s final blessing of the tournament to come next summer. It’s too late to turn back now — not that there was a possibility of that happening anyway.
“I can guarantee you that it’s probably going to be the safest World Cup that anybody can go to,” said Real Salt Lake forward Yura Movsisyan, who was born in Armenia, grew up in Pasadena, then played six years in the Russian Premier League. “They’re friendly people. And they’re going to make sure that nothing happens.
“This will be the best World Cup, the friendliest World Cup.”
Others aren’t so sure. Though no one doubts that Russia can stage a World Cup, there is considerable doubt over whether it should.
Politics have no part in sports; that seems self-evident. Also self-evident, however, is the fact an event such as the World Cup bestows on its host international approval and acclaim. Russia would seem to be worthy of neither.
Under Putin, Russia has invaded the Ukraine and annexed Crimea. His military intervened in the Syrian civil war, with Russian warplanes killing and misplacing tens of thousands of civilians. Numerous countries, including the U.S., have accused Russia of waging cyberattacks on various government agencies in an effort to wreak havoc and weaken democratic institutions. And last year, two reports by Canadian law professor Richard McLaren provided evidence that more than 1,000 Russian athletes benefited from “an institutional conspiracy” in which urine and blood samples were tampered with by anti-doping authorities.
At home, Putin has moved to silence his opponents — with many of his critics winding up imprisoned or dead — while his government has passed draconian anti-gay laws that have led to the imprisonment, deportation and torture of homosexuals.
It hardly seems the kind of place to which the world should come and play. But a deep field has shown up nonetheless, with Russia, the World Cup host, joined by reigning world champion Germany and the champions of FIFA six confederations, among them Mexico, the CONCACAF titlist.
But wait, it gets worse. This spring came reports that Zenit Arena in St. Petersburg, the $1.4-billion stadium where the Confederations Cup opened Saturday (with Russia beating New Zealand 2-0) and where it will close July 2, was built with the help of more than 100 North Korean laborers who were forced to work as long as 12 hours a day, seven days a week while living in inhumane conditions. Those reports come from the Norwegian soccer magazine Josimar and other international media outletss.
Last Tuesday, the U.S.-founded group Human Rights Watch published its own report, claiming it found widespread exploitation and abuse in visits to seven World Cup stadium sites in 2016 and 2017. It said 17 workers died on the job during the construction process.
FIFA responded by calling the conditions “appalling,” and it released a statement last week in which it said it agreed with Human Rights Watch’s desire to “ensure decent working conditions” at World Cup stadiums. However, it said it disagreed with the rights group’s “overall message of exploitation on the construction sites.”
Last year, Amnesty International criticized world soccer’s governing body for its indifference to the plight of migrant laborers working on World Cup-related projects in Qatar, which is to play host to the 2022 World Cup.
Qatar is dealing with other problems as well, most notably a boycott by many its Arab neighbors who accuse the oil-rich emirate of supporting radical groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic State.
In Russia, the problem is homegrown terrorists, such as the paramilitary-style hooligans who received encouragement and support from state media and government officials after sparking last summer’s riots at the European Championship in France.
In the lead-up to the Confederations Cup, and the World Cup to follow, police have begun cracking down on the thugs, with the hooligans responding, in a BBC documentary, with a promise that next summer’s tournament is “100% guaranteed” to be disrupted.
“For some it will be a festival of football,” one man pledged. “For others it will be a festival of violence.”
The next two weeks may show which side — the hooligans or the police — have the upper hand.
Then there’s the racism prevalent in Russian soccer, which could be harder to contain. In recent years, local clubs have been forced to play tournament games in empty stadiums as punishment for actions by their supporters.
“Almost every game I [saw] this happening,” said Brazilian international Hulk, who played four years with Zenit-St. Petersburg. “I used to get angry but now I see it doesn’t help.”
FIFA has chosen to downplay that problem too, disbanding an anti-racism task force because it has “completely fulfilled its temporary mission.”
For his part, Movsisyan doesn’t deny the racism. He just doesn’t think it’s a problem.
“You walk down the street, you’re going to have racism. Simple fact,” he said. “It’s not fair to say ‘Oh, there’s a lot of racism there.’ There’s racism everywhere you go. And that’s part of this world.
“Of course there’s racism in Russia. A lot of it. And I’ve faced it myself. But that same racism you see everywhere you go. I can’t wait for the World Cup so people see the beauty and the hospitality of the Russian people.”
Let’s hope so. But you probably shouldn’t bet on it.
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11