MOSCOW: Hours away from the 2018 World Cup’s curtain-raising match between hosts Russia and Saudi Arabia on Thursday (Jun 14), it is hard to tell if the home side’s manager Stanislav Cherchesov is being self-deprecating or simply resigned.
“Half the country will find out we're hosting the World Cup after the starting whistle blows tomorrow," he told a press conference. "In Russia, we take a long time to start driving. But once we put our foot to the pedal, we keep going - and everything falls into place."
Russia is spending an estimated US$14 billion on organising the football extravaganza for the first time in its history.
Much of that amount has been poured into sprucing up and improving the transport infrastructure across 11 host cities.
In Moscow alone, nearly a million foreign visitors are expected to descend on the capital - a far cry from the 200,000 attracted by the 1980 Olympics held there.
Locals appear to be receiving them with open arms: Recent state-funded polls showed over 70 per cent of Russians taking a positive view of their country's hosting duties.
“Despite some delays, the World Cup has been organised at the highest level," said journalist Stefano Conforti. “(President Vladimir) Putin really wants to show the power and beauty of Russia. This is an important opportunity to change people's opinions on Russia."
RISK OF TROUBLE
Yet inside the stadiums and among the stands, Russian perspectives and attitudes are viewed as controversial, to say the least.
Black footballers continue to receive monkey chants and a new study indicated a spike in racist and homophobic incidents over the last year. Russia has also been fined for racist fan behaviour at recent tournaments and matches.
Global football body FIFA has since introduced a rule allowing referees to halt or cancel a match over racist chants.
But even the federation’s head Gianni Infantino earlier this week admitted to a Swiss media outlet that the risk of racism and riots remain.
Russia's problem of football hooligans has been well-documented by Western media after ugly clashes with England rivals during the 2016 European Championships. The months leading to the World Cup have since seen a local police crackdown on the more infamous of these hooligans.
Then, there is the familiar spectre of terrorist threats, that plagues any large-scale event.
Last year, 13 were killed when a bomb went off on a train in Saint Petersburg city, and in recent months, Islamic State and militant groups have issued threats against the World Cup - although the government has also declared the foiling of many such plans.
In Moscow, security presence has been ramped up to some 30,000 personnel around town, with air force capabilities also deployed for good measure.
But organisers are betting most heavily on a new Fan ID feature - a mandatory document required for watching all World Cup matches. Some 500 individuals have already been denied these IDs.
International crime and Russian expert Professor Mark Galeotti described the World Cup as a Russian “investment in soft power and reputation repair”.
“So it is doing everything it can to ensure the potential threats of terrorism, crime and violence are minimised,” he told Channel NewsAsia.
“To this end ... security measures are unprecedented. It's impossible to know whether everything will go smoothly but the Russians have done everything they can.”
Local journalist Evgeny Markov said it was “impossible” for any trouble to occur. “The government is very interested in doing its best and with the highest level of quality,” he stated.
“WORST NATIONAL TEAM EVER”
On the pitch, however, one would be hard-pressed to associate those words with the Russian national squad.
Sbornaya, or “The Team”, is the lowest-ranked side at this year’s competition. Cherchesov’s charges are winless in their last seven games and have only mustered an appalling single shot on target in 180 minutes of play.
While Putin has modestly expressed hope for the team to “fight to the end”, a state television commentator was less kind, proclaiming this the “worst Russian national team ever”.
Less than half of a local survey group said the team would progress to the knockout stages - a feat never performed by any Russian side since independence.
National winger Aleksandr Samedov told a press conference on Wednesday he wished there were a “more positive atmosphere around the team" but acknowledged they would have to work to create one as well.
They will have their chance on Thursday against Saudi Arabia - the next worst-ranked team at the games, still looking for its first World Cup win since 1994.
Either way, the prospect of FIFA’s 67th-placed Saudi Arabia facing No.70 Russia is not a mouthwatering one - but Markov and Conforti insisted most Russians would be happy to watch the game and the rest of the World Cup.
“It's something that happens just once in life and you can’t miss it," said the latter. “I’m just sure everything will be unforgettable and beautiful."
Prof Galeotti disagreed. “Russians, perhaps aware of the poor standing of their team, are not yet as excited as they might be about the tournament," he said.
“However, they are going to experience a shock and awe campaign by the state-controlled TV media designed to inspire and enthuse them - and in the process, earn Putin credit for bringing the World Cup to Russia - which is likely to whip up a good deal more interest.”
Markov offered a reminder that there was still magic to be had in a sport known as the “Beautiful Game”.
“We are no football-mad country like Spain or Mexico. Some of us will just go about our lives, studying or working," he said. "Russian fans are not so interesting either. So we won't be setting the tone from the first match ... but we are going to try.”
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