WE NEED HER OES TO SHINE
Russia and FIFA pray stars light up the big stage to put gloss on their shabby images
On Krestovskiy Island, site of the mighty St Petersburg Stadium, is Primorskiy Victory Park, commemorating Russia’s triumph in World War II.
Once the green belt of old Leningrad, the area was seriously damaged by bombing during the 872day siege which destroyed the Beloselsky- Belozersky Palace, near where the arena stands.
now, it merely delivers a pleasant walk to a football ground. There are tree-lined paths, picturesque ponds and fountains and Divo Ostrov, an amusement park. To the right of the greenery and public space, however, is a road, Severnaya Doroga.
The nearer it gets to Krestovskiy Stadium, the more forbidding it becomes. The view disappears, obscured by newly- erected high security fences, and access is no longer possible.
This is the route by which FIFA arrive at a World Cup. not through parkland and pretty scenery, not with the fans, the football family they care so much about, but on an expressway fast track, in the manner of members of the Politburo. In a country that created ZiL lanes in Moscow for government officials — named after the brand of limousine that ferried them to their countryside dachas — this seems not at all unusual.
It illustrates, too, why FIFA are so comfortable taking their tournament to the homes of autocrats. Gianni Infantino and Vladimir Putin; they’ve got more in common than just cheesy promotional videos.
The World Cup starts today and FIFA need a good one. They want Lionel Messi at the top of his game, they want Brazil to perform, they need an imperious Cristiano Ronaldo and for Spain to swiftly rise above yesterday’s chaos. A lot is riding on the next 32 days. not just this World Cup, but the next one, too.
The decisions to favour Russia in 2018 and then Qatar in 2022 are inextricably linked. If Russia is a success, it will feel as if Qatar could also be, against all odds. If Russia disappoints, though, if the football is ordinary, the mood poisonous, if some of the worst fears are realised, the perception of Qatar, and of the governing body, will inevitably suffer as a result.
This is a World Cup in a country that has experienced scenes of racism inside its football grounds and has been accused of persecuting homosexuals through its ‘gay propaganda’ laws. There were reports yesterday of attacks on two gay French fans in Moscow, leaving one with a fractured jaw and head trauma.
‘Even though the injured are homosexuals, it does not justify the monsters who beat them,’ noted the OperSlil Telegram channel’s report of the incident.
FIFA yesterday backed the first three-way World Cup, to be held in Mexico, Canada and the United States, and it is expected this will also be the first to tackle the expanding and unwieldy 48-team format.
Increased revenue is the obvious motive — it always is with Infantino — but the FIFA brand remains toxic. The news that Sepp Blatter will be a guest of President Putin next week is a reminder that this is an organisation still tainted by its legacy of corruption.
The old crooks remain in orbit around this tournament and the men who have replaced them are scarcely more appealing. Infantino, whose every call of late has equated to a naked grab for cash, seems no grand improvement to anyone beyond the sycophants in FIFA’s congress hall.
And while the reputation of the World Cup suffers, inevitably the status of international football does as well.
To that end, the seismic news emanating from Spain’s camp near Sochi yesterday placed the standing of the national game in awkwardly sharp relief.
The news that the unbeaten manager of Spain, Julen Lopetegui, thought so highly of his position he took the Real Madrid job and gave his employers five minutes notice of the announcement, sums up the new world order. Even Infantino has devoted much of his time of late to muscling in on the wealth of the European leagues through a revamped version of the Club World Cup. If these are FIFA’s priorities, why not Lopetegui’s, too?
What was not anticipated was the furious, some might say petulant, reaction of his employers. The timing of Lopetegui’s dismissal must be among the strangest in World Cup history. To have kept his negotiations a secret from the federation, to have then risked divisions in the camp by