KEIR RADNEDGE in ST PETERSBURG —- Vitaly Mutko plainly felt he had good reason to smile as he presided over the opening media briefing before Russia kick off ‘their’ Confederations Cup against New Zealand here tomorrow.
Never mind the fact that his status as Deputy Prime Minister had cost him a place on FIFA Council; never mind the World Anti-Doping’s damning investigations; never mind the Human Rights Watch condemnation of construction workers’ conditions.
Mutko was back in his home city, the sun was shining and all was well with his sporting world. He even dwelled at length in satisfaction on FIFA’s anti-discrimination policy and invited a Sky TV reporter to accompany him on inspections of all the World Cup stadia sites.
Gianni Infantino, president of world federation FIFA, has talked of wanting to pull the agenda back to football (albeit his words have been compromised by his actions over the past week in undertaking meetings with the state presidents of South Korea and China).
But this was certainly the party line to which secretary-general Fatma Samoura, Mutko and organising ceo Alexey Sorokin were keen to subscribe on the eve of the warm-up tournament ahead of next year’s full-blown Russian World Cup.
Free train travel
The plain and unvarnished good news for foreign fans is that those with tickets will be able to travel to and from and around the 11 venue cities with free train tickets. It’s a massive logistical exercise and journeys will prove lengthy in terms of both time and miles because Russia is a massive country.
This does illustrate, however, just how determined are the authorities here to persuade the rest of the world that they will find a smile on the face of the Russian bear.
“This is a football feast,” said Mutko, “and we are absolutely ready. We have taken all the necessary measures – infrastructure, hotels, transportation as well as every possible measure to guarantee security.
“There is a visa-free regime for people who have tickets for the Confederations Cup and the World Cup. People don’t have to pay for transport from one city to another, it will be free for ticket-holders.”
How this will work for non-ticket-holders travelling with ticket-holders is one example of the organisational discovery which is what the Confederations Cup is all about. Some 262 such trains have been laid on for the Confederations Cup. How many will be needed next year has yet to be computed.
Also under scrutiny will be the ‘fan passport’ system which is essential for ticket-holders and appears to be a sort of visa-friendly system by another name.
Samoura followed up, equally enthusiastically, saying: “Russia can now start reaping their reward in high level football. Everything will be in full swing.”
From a football point-of-view this included the full deployment of anti-discrimination monitors during all matches and orders for referees to implement the ‘three-step policy’ in case of outbreaks of racist behaviour.
“It is a serious issue and we have a zero tolerance policy,” insisted Samoura after several years of criticism that FIFA had not been paying enough attention to the issue after the collapse of the anti-discrimination taskforce led by the now-disrgaced Jeffrey Webb.
Samoura added: “This tournament is a crucial step on the way to the 2018 World Cup for both the host country and for FIFA but most of all it is about football. It’s an amazing tournament with some of the best players in the world so let’s make sure we enjoy it.”
Seats are still available for those fans not as enthused as Samoura.
Thus far ticketing sales have reached 480,000 which equates to 65pc of stadia capacity in the four venues – St Petersburg, Moscow, Kazan and Sochi – and the Opening Match is not even a sell-out.
Russia-Portugal at Moscow Spartak on June 21 is the only match for which tickets have all gone and some of those seats will not be taken up if an experimentally-rebuild home team fail to deliver the goods against New Zealand tomorrow.
Mutko, appealing for patience and understanding while switching to his hat as president of the Russian Football Union, explained: “We are renewing our team, we are rebuilding it from scratch, we have a new coach and only nine players from the squad who played at the Euro finals last year.
“This team need the support of the fans and they need confidence and the experience of an official tournament because we are not able to play any competitive games before the World Cup but only friendlies.
“It is going to be very interesting,”