It’s hard to get a kick out of Rus­sia’s re­cent ac­tions

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - KEVIN BAX­TER kevin.bax­ter@la­times.com Twit­ter: @kbax­ter11

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 Ukraine and an­nexed Crimea. His mil­i­tary in­ter­vened in the Syr­ian civil war, with Rus­sian war­planes killing and dis­plac­ing 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 out­lets.

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 down­played that prob­lem too, dis­band­ing an anti-racism task force be­cause it has “com­pletely ful­filled its tem­po­rary mis­sion.”

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.

‘Al­most ev­ery game I [saw] this hap­pen­ing. I used to get an­gry but now I see it doesn’t help.’ — HULK, Brazilian on his ex­pe­ri­ence with racism while play­ing for a club team in St. Peters­burg

‘Of course there’s racism in Rus­sia . . . . But that same racism you see ev­ery­where you go.’ — YURA MOVSISYAN, Real Salt Lake for­ward and veteran of six years in the Rus­sian Pre­mier league

Alexei Druzhinin Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

RUS­SIAN PRES­I­DENT Vladimir Putin, third from left, FIFA Pres­i­dent Gianni In­fantino, sec­ond from left, and soc­cer great Pele, left, ap­plaud be­fore the Con­fed­er­a­tions Cup opener in St. Peters­burg, Rus­sia.

Ge­orgi Li­cov­ski Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

RUS­SIA’S Vik­tor Vasin, left, com­petes with New Zealand’s Chris Wood in Con­fed­er­a­tions Cup opener.

An­dre Pen­ner As­so­ci­ated Press

Yi-Chin Lee As­so­ci­ated Press

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