The bid banner at the Russia v Germany game last Saturday (James Corbett)

(WFI) After FIFA president Sepp Blatter says Russia has a “good chance” of landing the 2018 or 2022 World Cup, WFI’s James Corbett analyses the country’s prospects.

Blatter praised the Russian bid effort in a meeting with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow Thursday. The Oct. 9 bid launch showed Russia will be a serious challenger to frontrunner England in the race for the World Cup.

As the anticipation rose to fever pitch at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium prior to Russia’s crucial World Cup qualifying match against Germany last Saturday, Russia unveiled its bid slogan.

With shouts of “Russ-ee-a” filling the stadium, the biggest flag I have ever witnessed was unfurled in one of the stands. Eventually filling its entire height and running the length of the pitch, the banner was a pastiche of a Soviet-era propaganda poster, bearing the words in Russian and English: “Get Ready”.

A day earlier in Moscow’s iconic GUM department store, bid chairman and Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko and his CEO, Alexey Sorokin, talked about their hopes for hosting football’s ultimate competition.

Mutko called on FIFA to make an “historic choice” and award Russia the “most important sporting party in the world.” He promised a “complicated overhaul” not just of the country’s sporting infrastructure, but of everything from Russia’s transport to its hospitals.

Sorokin spoke of the team’s “compact but diverse plan”, which is focused on European Russia and clusters of cities so as to minimize long haul travel.

But beneath the soundbites in GUM and the bravura of the Luzhniki Stadium, considerable work has already been done behind the scenes.

Mutko claims that work on Russia’s 1,200-page bid book will be completed by December, six months before FIFA’s deadline.

Such understated effectiveness – if, of course, not done in haste – will surely send out a clear signal to FIFA that Russia, as its slogan claims, is indeed “ready” for the vast infrastructure improvements it will need to carry out if it is to succeed in hosting the 2018 World Cup finals.

The challenges ahead
Russia certainly has the passion to host a World Cup, and as witnessed at its bid launch also possesses the political will, funding and ambition. But the problems facing Russia’s bid team lie not within the Russian Football Union (RFU), but the environment in which it operates.

If it is to stand a reasonable chance with FIFA’s inspectors, a variety of important issues need to be addressed.
First and foremost and perhaps most basic is the cost and inconvenience of getting a visa, which costs between $120-450 and usually necessitates a couple of consulate visits.

Sorokin says he is “sure and certain” that some sort of visa waiver scheme will be in place by the time of the finals, but given the numbers likely to visit a World Cup this needs to be a priority of any viable bid.

Existing infrastructure in Russia is patchy. Throughout the country there is a massive shortage of hotel rooms, even in its great boom city, Moscow. FIFA inspectors might be chastened by the example of Ukraine, which risks being stripped of the UEFA 2012 European Championships after failing key pledges on hotel provision.

Overall communications standards in Moscow fall well short of western European norms.

An abiding memory of the Luzhniki Stadium is listening to the BBC’s Mike Ingham commentating on an England match down his mobile phone after the stadium’s comms system failed.

On my visit last week, there was no mobile signal, while the stadium’s Wi-Fi died, and came alive again before giving up for good midway through the second half of the Russia v Germany clash. If this is Russia’s gold standard then it frankly isn’t good enough.

Yet transport in the major cities is good, reliable and one of the few bargains Russia offers. Moreover, the “cluster” system of nearby cities envisaged by the bid team will obviate some of the more arduous intercity journeys.

Another part of FIFA’s technical criteria which may prove problematic is the country’s environmental credentials.
As at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, air quality threatens to be a problem. The Moscow skyline offers a juxtaposition of gold topped orthodox churches and chimneys billowing out smoke. Even in its inner circle, no more than 1km from the Kremlin, power stations and factories line the Moskva River.

Beyond the capital, where standards are even more lax, pollution is far worse.

Moscow is also expensive. The comfortable but otherwise unremarkable hotel I stayed in 20 minutes walk from Red Square cost R12,000 ($400)

Bid CEO Alexey Sorokin speaks of a “compact but diverse plan” (James Corbett)

per night; a glass of fruit juice in one of GUM’s cafes was priced at $13.50. Such high costs will put the tournament beyond the reach of many ordinary fans.

At the same time, the contrast between the haves and the have-nots in Russia is staggering.

It seems difficult to imagine the hoards of locals who filled the empty seats of priced-out foreign fans in Japan and South Korea in 2002. Most, quite simply, won’t be able to afford it.

Policing football’s great party
Arguably the biggest problem facing Russia’s bid team is the way in which its authorities treat football fans.
If Russia is to prove a capable host of what Mutko termed the “most important sporting party in the world” it needs to find a way to balance effective policing without the continual sense that you’re one step away from feeling the end of a policeman’s baton.

While it’s true that no European country has suffered in the past decade from terrorism like Russia, there was an unmistakable feeling that this is a police state.

On the short walk from the metro station – still two hours from kick-off of the Russia v Germany match – I encountered no fewer than seven security cordons, manned by a mixture of police and army conscripts. This included three separate bag searches, which not even my shiny press pass could stave off.

A well-informed friend, resident in Moscow at the time of the 2008 Champions League final between Manchester United and Chelsea, recalled to me the authorities’ utter preoccupation with English hooligans

The bid logo will be a key part of the 14-month campaign (James Corbett)

prior to the game.
They orchestrated an enormous security operation, which included flying the different fans through different airports, and doing virtually everything humanly possible to keep them apart.

The only time the two groups met – on the approach to the stadium – they were separated by a wall of armed troops – “scared young soldiers with guns” – which created an incredibly tense situation, but dispelled any threat of trouble.

Such heavy-handedness, while effective, ran counter to any real possibility of serious crowd trouble.

While Sorokin, who was in charge of operations for that game, spoke of the Champions League as a “milestone” for Russia, few of those who came over from England had much that was positive to say about the experience.

An hour after the Russia v Germany match, as I made my way to Moscow’s sumptuous metro, my only companions were line after line of Russian troops, marching to their wagons and buses, as if extras from some war movie.

On the train into town, two Germany supporters expressed their bemusement to me. In hosting the 2006 tournament, their country had thrown the ultimate football party, they said. Is a similar prospect remotely conceivable in 2018 given such policing?

An effective bid team?
This, however, is not really a reflection of the Russian FA, rather the difficult social and political environment in which it operates.

The Russian FA were generous hosts, eager to show the world the great possibilities of Russian football. Vitaly Mutko was an impressive, effusive figure; a man who believes to his core in the transformative effect of sport on society.

Alexey Sorokin was a more measured and serious voice, giving the impression of a man who gets things done. He also spoke with an inherent understanding of every minute aspect of FIFA’s technical criteria.

This duo oversees a formidable bid team.

Its staff includes as international media coordinator Andreas Herren, the affable former FIFA communications chief. Herren is more than an effective PR man, but arguably the person who knows FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s mind better than anyone else in world football having served as his gatekeeper and spokesman for many years.

The bid’s director of planning and operations is Alexander Djordjadze, a veteran of Russia’s major sporting bids, including the successful effort to bring the IAAF World Championships to Moscow in 2013.

What the bid team perhaps currently lacks is star quality.

Putin’s role in the Sochi Olympic bid was considered crucial to it ultimately securing the 2014 Winter Games. While he has lent his support to the World Cup bid, he will need to take a frontline role in the coming months.

Hosting a World Cup is not just about putting on a good show, however, it’s a way of changing an entire culture: of providing necessary overhauls to stadia; of modernizing cities; of promoting sustainability and legacies; of developing domestic leagues; of changing outward perceptions of a footballing culture and entire country.

Assuming 2018 is Europe’s year, of the continent’s four bids no country will be changed more fundamentally by hosting a World Cup than Russia. And if these are the things FIFA is looking for, then Russia stands a very good chance indeed.

Written by James Corbett        

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