Smooth soccer all scheduled for Russia – or else!
Activists frown as Putin welcomes World Cup community to Moscow
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.”
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.”
The World Cup is set to begin Thursday when the host country, Russia, faces Saudi Arabia.