Rus­sia and FIFA pray stars light up the big stage to put gloss on their shabby images

Daily Mail - - Sports - MARTIN SAMUEL Chief Sports Writer re­ports from St Peters­burg

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

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