The Confederations Cup is set to begin in St Petersburg on Saturday, giving soccer fans around the world a first taste of what to expect when the World Cup takes place in Russia next year.
Four of the World Cup’s 11 host cities – St Petersburg, Sochi, Kazan and Moscow – are staging matches at the eight-nation tournament which culminates with the final on July 2 in St Petersburg.
The tournament provides Russia with another opportunity to showcase its ability to host a major international event following the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
The organizers will also be hoping to repair the nation’s sporting reputation, which has been badly dented by recent doping scandals.
Russian athletes were excluded from the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro as well as this year’s world athletics championships as a result of state-sponsored doping.
Security has been stepped up for the tournament, while the Russian organizers have played down fears of hooliganism after the country’s fans were involved in violent scenes at Euro 2016.
Vitaly Mutko, deputy prime minister and organizing committee chief, told Germany’s Spiegel Online: “The attempt to portray Russia as a dangerous country is something we know about, we also saw that before the Olympic Games in Sochi.”
Russian soccer has also been blighted in the past by racism, and FIFA this week put anti-discrimination mechanisms in place for the tournament to give referees authority to stop and even abandon a match.
A three-step system allows referees to stop a match if players receive racist abuse and request a public announcement, then suspend the match if behavior persists and if necessary abandon the match.
FIFA is also testing video reviews for referees with a view to the system possibly being used at the World Cup next year.
Although the readiness of stadiums has not been a major issue, the monitoring group Human Rights Watch this week criticized FIFA for failing to protect workers constructing Russia’s World Cup stadiums.
In response, FIFA said the scale of the allegations did not correspondent to their own assessment based on quarterly inspections by independent experts and trade union representatives.
On allegations of exploitation of North Korean workers building the St Petersburg stadium, Mutko told Spiegel magazine organizers were not responsible for what workers were being employed by sub-contractors.
On the sporting side, the six FIFA confederation champions plus world champions Germany and hosts Russia are doing battle for the 10th edition of a tournament whose future is in doubt.
South American champions Chile, European champions Portugal and world champions Germany, despite leaving several of their top stars at home, are the favorites.
For Russia, who kick off the tournament against New Zealand, a good performance if not the title is expected as the national team continues its overhaul with a new generation of players following a poor Euro 2016.
President Vladimir Putin, for whom the tournament and the World Cup are prestige projects, said Thursday: “Let us hope that the guys will try to perform well, like real fighters.”