Smooth soc­cer all sched­uled for Rus­sia – or else!

Ac­tivists frown as Putin wel­comes World Cup com­mu­nity to Moscow

USA TODAY International Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Martin Rogers

MOSCOW – An Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal tri­umph fea­tur­ing Don­ald Trump work­ing qui­etly be­hind the scenes, with Canada and Mex­ico as al­lies, tak­ing place on Rus­sian soil and with the backing of Vladimir Putin?

Such a vic­tory took place Wed­nes­day as the United Bid, a three­p­ronged cam­paign led by the United States, won the right to host soc­cer’s 2026 FIFA World Cup.

Rus­sia, whose soc­cer fed­er­a­tion has close ties to Putin’s regime, was one of the na­tions that voted in fa­vor as the United Bid saw off its only chal­lenger, Morocco.

The 2018 World Cup kicks off here Thurs­day, be­gin­ning a five-week cel­e­bra­tion filled with elite com­pe­ti­tion on the field and con­cern for in­tol­er­ance in the stands and streets.

Though no one knows who will emerge vic­to­ri­ous July 16, one thing can be taken to the bank: Rus­sia has turned on the charm, all the way from Putin down.

“We’ve done ev­ery­thing to en­sure our guests, sports­men, ex­perts and, of course, fans feel at home in Rus­sia,” Putin said in a video, even threat­en­ing for a mo­ment to break into a smile.

Putin has no great love for soc­cer, but he un­der­stands the value of in­ter­na­tional sport­ing events as ex­er­cises in pro­pa­ganda. Putin ap­proved the checks as Rus­sia spent $50 bil­lion to stage the Sochi Win­ter Olympics in 2014, saw his coun­try top the medal ta­ble with the help of state-spon­sored dop­ing, then sent his troops in to an­nex the Crimea from Ukraine three days af­ter the Olympic flame was ex­tin­guished.

While catch­ing heat in­ter­na­tion­ally for alleged in­ter­fer­ence in elec­tions in the USA and else­where, sup­port of Syr­ian dic­ta­tor Bashar As­sad and the alleged poi­son­ing of a former spy on Bri­tish soil, Putin’s regime has put the fin­ish­ing touches to a tour­na­ment that cost $11 bil­lion.

Tues­day brought the first overt case of po­lit­i­cal mus­cle be­ing wielded. Forty-eight hours be­fore the World

“LGBT fans trav­el­ing to Rus­sia face po­ten­tial harassment from lo­cals over pub­lic dis­plays of af­fec­tion. There is not wide­spread tol­er­ance.”

Jonathon Keymer Travel risk ex­pert

Cup’s open­ing game, Ramzan Kady­rov – the con­tro­ver­sial leader of Chech­nya in­stalled by Putin a decade ago – turned up at Egypt’s train­ing ses­sion for a photo with Mo­hamed Salah, one of the top play­ers in the tour­na­ment.

Amnesty In­ter­na­tional called the move by Kady­rov, whose Chechen regime has a bru­tal hu­man rights record, a case of clear “sports-wash­ing.”

Most of the FIFA mem­bers who voted for Rus­sia to stage this World Cup when the elec­tion was held in 2010 have sub­se­quently been found cul­pa­ble of cor­rup­tion, yet de­spite calls for the re­moval of the tour­na­ment – which in­ten­si­fied again when the Rus­sian team was banned from this year’s Win­ter Olympics over its dop­ing scan­dal – here it is, poised to be­gin.

Even Putin’s fiercest crit­ics expect the tour­na­ment to go off with barely a hitch, not be­cause Rus­sia has fixed its prob­lems but be­cause its leader is hard­line enough to quell re­sis­tance by what­ever means nec­es­sary.

Rus­sia en­forces a law ban­ning “gay pro­pa­ganda” that has been in­ter­preted as an at­tack on the LGBT com­mu­nity.

“I am not here to sup­port Putin, I am sup­port­ing soc­cer.”

Stephen Gal­lagher

Sup­port­ers of the statute claim it pro­tects the minds of chil­dren from cor­rup­tion, but it has been de­nounced by hu­man rights groups.

“LGBT fans trav­el­ing to Rus­sia face po­ten­tial harassment from lo­cals over pub­lic dis­plays of af­fec­tion,” said Jonathon Keymer, a travel risk ex­pert who mon­i­tors Rus­sia for iJet In­ter­na­tional. “There is not wide­spread tol­er­ance.”

The in­tol­er­ance ex­tends to racism. Rus­sia’s soc­cer au­thor­i­ties were sanc­tioned af­ter black play­ers from France were tar­geted with racist chants dur­ing a game in St. Peters­burg in March.

Soc­cer play­ers drawn to the lu­cra­tive Rus­sian Pre­mier League have been tar­geted – Brazil­ians Hulk and Roberto Car­los and the Repub­lic of Congo’s Christo­pher Samba were on the re­ceiv­ing end of abuse.

Rus­sia has be­come one of the pri­mary cen­ters for soc­cer hooli­gan­ism. Rus­sian sup­port­ers were in­volved in bloody skir­mishes with ri­val fans, in­clud­ing an in­ci­dent with English fol­low­ers at the 2016 Euro­pean Cham­pi­onships in France.

Sev­eral Rus­sian politicians voiced their sup­port for the thugs for de­fend­ing Rus­sia’s honor.

The Krem­lin has lit­tle ap­petite for see­ing such scenes on Rus­sian soil over the com­ing weeks, and spec­ta­tors are re­quired to carry “FAN-ID” doc­u­men­ta­tion in an ef­fort to keep soc­cer gangs away.

Putin drafted his fe­ro­cious Cos­sack mili­tia en­forcers to pa­trol Moscow in a bid to avoid un­rest.

Whether the show of force is de­signed to scare or re­as­sure fans is un­sure, but Amer­i­can visi­tors are here in large num­bers, along with soc­cer-philes from around the globe.

Stephen Gal­lagher, 43, who trav­eled to Moscow from his home in Los An­ge­les on Tues­day, said he was un­de­terred by Rus­sia’s rep­u­ta­tion.

“There are al­ways rea­sons not to come, but I wasn’t go­ing to let what’s in the news stop me,” Gal­lagher said. “I am not here to sup­port Putin, I am sup­port­ing soc­cer.”

RO­MAN PILPEY/EPA-EFE

The World Cup is set to be­gin Thurs­day when the host coun­try, Rus­sia, faces Saudi Ara­bia.

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