With President Vladimir Putin in attendance and 44,000 tickets sold, Saturday’s Confederations Cup opener will give Russia the chance to show off its preparations for next year’s World Cup despite concerns over stadium security and infrastructure.
World Cup holders Germany and the six winners of FIFA confederations descend on Russia for the two-week tournament that will allow the hosts to assess the readiness of four of its World Cup venues and its ability to handle fans from overseas.
Russia is set to host the 2018 World Cup in 12 stadiums spread across 11 cities, including Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kazan and Sochi.
Russia take on New Zealand in St. Petersburg in the first match of the eight-nation Confederations Cup on a pitch that had to be hastily relaid after football officials deplored its quality when it cut up badly during a match there in April.
“The preparations are now complete. Russia is ready,” Colin Smith, director of competitions for global soccer body FIFA, said at a news conference in St. Petersburg on Friday.
“It’s a useful test, as are any of our tournaments, to streamline our processes and operations.” Smith acknowledged that Russia had done “some intense fine-tuning” ahead of the tournament.
The decade-long construction of the 68,000-seat venue was plagued with delays, corruption allegations and reports of human rights violations.
Since clashes between Russian and English fans tarnished the European championship in France last year, Putin has approved legislation that toughens punishments for violence at sporting events as part of a broader crackdown on hooliganism.
FIFA will for the first time also implement a three-step procedure that allow referees to stop matches in the event of racist or discriminatory incidents — a new measure Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko welcomed as the “absolute right decision”.
A bombing in the St. Petersburg metro that left 16 dead in April has also triggered fears that a similar attack could hit Russia during the tournament. However, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said last week terrorism did not pose any threat to Confederations Cup participants and spectators.
“A huge amount of preparatory work has been done,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Friday. “We have all the grounds to believe that everything will be successful and take place on a high level.”
While Germany are resting their senior players for the tournament, the Confederations Cup will benefit from the star appeal of Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo.
Hosts Russia, who drew with Copa America champions Chile 1-1 in a friendly last week, slipped to a record low 63rd in FIFA world rankings this month.