As Russia emerges as favourite to beat England’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup, Keme Nzerem tours the country to look at its strengths and weaknesses.
When consorting with Russian football firms it pays to know your English history. Especially when they’re drunk and preparing for the biggest game of the season.
“Who’s your team?” Sasha asked me, cigarette in one hand, pint of beer in the other.
I told him it was a small South London club he’s probably never heard of – Charlton Athletic. I was wrong.
“Aren’t your biggest rivals Crystal Palace?” he responded without pause, referring to the days when Charlton were forced to share Palace’s ground. I realised my hasty but honest admission was a big mistake. Crystal Palace play in red and blue stripes – and so do Sasha’s team – CSKA Moscow.
Sasha had just been telling me how he used to travel Europe with his firm looking for fights. I worried our newfound friendship would soon be over. Sasha’s boys had modelled their ways on English hooligans of the 80s, and he clearly still held affections for his idols at Palace. Sasha had already told me he had little time for journalists. He blames us for getting him and his mates into trouble. He’s had his passport seized – and now he can only attend Russian league games.
Russian football will have to overcome big problems with racism, corruption, and infrastructure.
Luckily for me Sasha says he doesn’t fight any more – but he has many friends who still do. He told me he knew all about the plans to brawl against opposing fans at the following day’s Moscow Derby – and if we hung out with him for long enough, we’d find out too.
Against this backdrop Russia wants to persuade FIFA that they should be entrusted to host the 2018 World Cup. But somehow, they have become favourites.
Russian football will have to overcome big problems with racism, corruption, and infrastructure, but they have one key thing on their side – and it ticks a very big box for football’s governing body.
FIFA says its core goal is to take football to every corner of the planet. South Africa hosted 2010, Brazil will host 2014 – so why not the former USSR in 2018?
Their central pitch – why choose predictable old England when football’s gospel could be sung by eager new disciples in what were once the Soviet heartlands.
So first to Russia’s racism problem. Fans at Khimki stadium watching CSKA Moscow (once the army team) play Spartak (in the Soviet days backed by the trade unions) – told us without fail they supported Russia’s World Cup bid. One told us: “We want to receive guests, and to show our footballing culture.”
Yet his friend told us he only supported it 88 per cent – 88 being a neo-Nazi reference to Mein Kampf.
Russia’s far right has formed new alliances with football firms – and Africans living in Moscow say they can’t go to watch games for fear of being attacked. Is this reason for FIFA to refuse Russia the World Cup? Well anti-fascists say awarding the European Championships in 2012 to Ukraine and Poland has begun to force authorities there to at least acknowledge their problems. Maybe Russia will one day too.
The Eastern Europe rep for a UEFA sponsored anti-racism body, Football Against Racism in Europe, met me at a Kremlin memorial to the Russian soldiers who died fighting Nazis. The World Cup could be just what Russia needs to confront its problems.
“There is a big problem with racism in Russian football,” Rafal told me. “But it doesn’t mean the World Cup shouldn’t come to Russia – in fact the opposite – because it could be a catalyst for change.”
But it is the rotting Soviet-built infrastructure that Russia says FIFA could really help transform. A trip to the ground of the once-mighty Dynamo Moscow is a depressing affair for former CCCP international Alexander Bubnov.
He’s now a sports analyst and football commentator. If Russia win the World Cup bid on Thursday, Dynamo Moscow will get a new stadium.
But Bubnov doesn’t believe the hype. “There is no infrastructure whatsoever. For that reason Russia lost their bid to host the European Cup back in 2004. Since then things have got Worse. FIFA shouldn’t hold a World Cup in a European country that hasn’t yet hosted the European Cup. I am not against my country. I just want the World Cup to be successful.”
And, warns Mr Bubnov, there’s another reason FIFA should think twice. Corruption.
In politics, in business – and in football – even referees. Sergei Khusainov has officiated cup finals and internationals. He says some years ago he was offered 100 thousand dollars to fix a Moscow derby by one of the team bosses. And, he claims these days his colleagues don’t get work unless they take bribes.
“It’s still happening. Unfortunately that’s how things have developed. If a referee doesn’t do what he has been told to, by his bosses, he risks losing his licence.”
And, claims Khusainov, as many as half Russian League games are suspect.
“In the past 5 years we have made huge progress…and negative factors like match-fixing are beginning to disappear.” Referee Sergei Khusainov
The Russian Football Association say they – and the clubs – are dealing with the problem. Many clubs are now funded by oligarchs and energy companies. Lukoil sponsor Spartak Moscow. Their owner Leonid Fedun is worth 5 and half billion dollars. And yes, he concedes, Russian football really is corrupt.
“It wouldn’t be honest to say that we don’t have problems with corruption. Unfortunately corruption is common in countries with a developing economy. But in the past 5 years we have made huge progress…and negative factors like match-fixing are beginning to disappear. Football is getting cleaner – believe me.”
Today’s Wikileaks revelations may describe the country as a `virtual mafia state’ – but there is undeniably a new swagger about town.
Red Square is now decorated with exclusive brands. On its way soon the blingest thing in motorports – Formula 1.
The Winter Olympics arrive in 2014. Next, perhaps, the world cup. If South Africa and then Brazil could persuade FIFA, why not Russia?
And Fedun and the lobbyists behind Russia’s bid know how to speak FIFA’s language. He explained: “The tournament in 2018 should be for the development of football and open the potential of the Russian football market, which is in the interests of football everywhere. I don’t see any risks. Our government has given an unprecedented guarantee: everything will be built on time, and to the highest standards.”
And Russia has run a slick campaign – the government promising £100b of world cup related investment for new roads, stadiums, airports and railways. They are the very issues FIFA’s technical experts said were letting Russia’s world cup bid down.
When FIFA assessed Russia’s technical readiness, its overstretched transport links set off a great big alarm. If the win the bid, Football fans will probably be warned not to rely on planes to get around. They may have to take the train.
The 400-mile rail journey to Saransk, Russia’s smallest World Cup city, is comfortable, but hardly speedy. It takes 10 hours. Flights on the fleet of cold war turboprops are few and far between.
In the Soviet days, Moscow built prisons near here. Now they’re building a new football stadium. Of course they’ll have to knock down houses – but the residents have been promised new ones.
The World Cup, says Saransk – is their future – and they’re sending Nikolai Merkushkin, the regional governor to Switzerland this week to make sure FIFA knows just what it would mean for them – and indeed, their country.
“I think that Russia has a chance. Because in my opinion, for FIFA, a victory for England is not a victory. But a victory for Russia is a victory for FIFA, because in England very little will change if the World Cup is held there.”
Which is why the bookies make Russia favourites to win. FIFA’s stated goal – to take football to every corner of the planet. If the 10 year old trainees at the Saransk academy make it through the ranks to represent their country – they could well do so at the first world cup in what was once the heart of the Soviet Union.