Rus­sia de­fies critics to throw World Cup party

The Korea Times - - SPORTS -

MOSCOW (AFP) —The World Cup kicks off in Rus­sia on Thurs­day as years of prepa­ra­tions dogged by diplo­matic scan­dals give way to a month of ac­tion on the field in foot­ball’s global show­piece.

Rus­sia get the ball rolling against Saudi Ara­bia at the com­pletely re­fur­bished 80,000-ca­pac­ity Luzh­niki Sta­dium in Moscow af­ter an open­ing cer­e­mony at­tended by Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin.

Brazil have won the ti­tle a record five times while de­fend­ing cham­pi­ons Ger­many are on four and de­ter­mined to draw level with the Brazil­ians when the fi­nal is played at Luzh­niki on July 15.

There was lit­tle ro­mance in the pre­lude as Rus­sia’s prob­lems — from racism and hooli­gan­ism to a for­eign pol­icy sharply at odds with the West — were ex­posed and scru­ti­nised.

Bri­tain and some east­ern Euro­pean states still haunted by Moscow’s rule in the Soviet era tried to or­gan­ise a diplo­matic boy­cott over the poi­son­ing in Eng­land of a for­mer Rus­sian spy.

Nei­ther the Bri­tish royal fam­ily nor Bri­tish govern­ment mem­bers will at­tend, but a wider boy­cott ef­fort fiz­zled out.

Rus­sian or­ga­niz­ers say they ex­pect more than 20 heads of state to at­tend the open­ing match.

“We would like to un­der­score the va­lid­ity of the FIFA prin­ci­ple of sport be­ing out­side pol­i­tics,” Rus­sian leader Putin told a meet­ing Wed­nes­day of foot­ball’s gov­ern­ing body FIFA.

“Rus­sia has al­ways ad­hered to this prin­ci­ple,” Putin said.

Hearts and minds Rus­sia is spend­ing more than $13 bil­lion (11 bil­lion eu­ros) on its most im­por­tant event since the 1980 Moscow Sum­mer Olympics.

The money will boost Putin’s al­ready sky-high pres­tige at home even fur­ther by giv­ing many of the 11 host cities their first facelifts in gen­er­a­tions.

Cities like Saransk were sleepy out­posts with de­cay­ing build­ings un­til World Cup con­struc­tion work­ers put them firmly in the 21st cen­tury.

The tour­na­ment also of­fers Putin a chance to project Rus­sia as a global player that is ac­cepted and re­spected even while be­ing at odds with the United States.

Rus­sia is pulling it all off while bear­ing the brunt of in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions that be­gan af­ter it in­vaded and an­nexed Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014.

Moscow’s mil­i­tary backing of Bashar al-As­sad’s regime in Syria and al­leged med­dling in the 2016 U. S. elec­tion on Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s be­half only deep­ened its worst rift with the West since the Cold War. Putin hopes the most watched event on the planet pro­vides Rus­sia with the ‘soft power’ needed to cap­ture a scep­ti­cal world’s hearts and minds.

“Our goal is to make every­one, from foot­ball stars to or­di­nary fans, feel the good will and hos­pi­tal­ity of our peo­ple ... so that they want to come back here again,” Putin said Wed­nes­day.

Racism and ri­ots

Rus­sia’s trou­bles do not end in the high-brow world of geopol­i­tics.

The bloody beat­ing English fans took from nearly 200 Rus­sian thugs at Euro 2016 in France has plagued prepa­ra­tions as much as any diplo­matic dis­pute.

Neo-Nazi hooli­gans who or­ga­nize mass fights in forests and chant racist slurs at play­ers have lorded over Rus­sian sta­di­ums for years.

The anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion net­work Fare said Rus­sia’s foot­ball fed­er­a­tion was mak­ing mat­ters worse by pun­ish­ing those who re­acted to racist abuse “while ig­nor­ing the per­pe­tra­tors.”

Se­cu­rity ser­vices have ei­ther locked up or checked in on hun­dreds of hood­lums to make sure they do noth­ing to tar­nish Rus­sia’s im­age.

The scare tac­tics have worked. Some foot­ball gang mem­bers say they will be skip­ping town once the games be­gin to avoid get­ting rounded up.

AP-Yon­hap

Soc­cer fans from Brazil dance as they gather on Nikol­skaya Street ahead of the 2018 soc­cer World Cup in Moscow, Rus­sia, Wed­nes­day. Fans from par­tic­i­pat­ing coun­tries gath­ered in the cen­tral pedes­trian street to chant, wave flags, and meet fans from around the world.

A Peru fan wears an elab­o­rate cos­tume fea­tur­ing flags from par­tic­i­pat­ing coun­tries

An Egypt fan wears a pharaoh head­dress as fans from par­tic­i­pat­ing coun­tries gath­ered in Rus­sia.

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