Despite fears over security and construction delays at several stadiums, Russia looks largely on course one year from the kick-off of the World Cup in June 2018. There was already a whiff of scandal around the first World Cup to be held in Eastern Europe after Swiss authorities opened a probe into possible corruption during the bidding for the event.
Then worries of hooligan violence surged after gangs of Russian fans grabbed headlines by rampaging through the streets of Marseille at Euro 2016. But for strongman President Vladimir Putin the World Cup is an invaluable chance to burnish Russia’s prestige as the country has slumped to its worst standoff with the West over Ukraine and Syria.
And authorities insist they have all problems firmly in hand as they gear up for a test-run with the Confederations Cup tournament starting in the second city Saint Petersburg on June 17.
The World Cup will be the biggest international event that Russia has hosted since it lavished huge sums on staging the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014. So far only four of the 12 World Cup stadiums – Saint Petersburg, Kazan, Sochi and the Otkrytie Arena in Moscow — are up and running for the warm-up Confederations Cup.
The finishing touches are also being put to the iconic Luzhniki stadium in Moscow — which is set to hold the World Cup opener and final — with a trial game scheduled for the autumn.
While most of the arenas are running to time, there has also been a spate of scandals over delays, corruption and poor labour conditions.
The stadium in Saint Petersburg ended up taking a decade to build and costing some $800 million (716 million euros), with groundsmen still ending up having to frantically replace the pitch a month before the Confed Cup.
In the Volga town of Samara the bill for the 45,000-seater Cosmos Arena has risen to a reported USD 320 million as constructors had to make late design changes to keep from dropping too far behind schedule.
Human Rights Watch documented how migrant workers have faced unpaid wages and dire conditions, with a reported 17 labourers dying at the World Cup sites.
Meanwhile Moscow has also conceded that workers from repressive state North Korea were also involved in construction in Saint Petersburg. Despite the scandals, authorities across the World Cup host venues — which stretch from European exclave Kalingrad
in the west to the Urals city of Yekaterinburg in the east — insist they will be ready on time.
The stadiums are not the only key projects going up around the 11 cities due to hold the event. Transport and tourism infrastructure such as airports and hotels are being rushed towards completion to cope with the influx of foreign visitors to destinations that rarely draw many foreigners.
There are also major security fears surrounding the World Cup in Russia with the shadow of terrorism and hooliganism looming over the event. Moscow has a long history of battling against terror and been the target of bloody attacks. A suicide bombing on the metro in Saint Petersburg killed 15 people in April, just over two months ahead of the Confederations Cup opener in the city.
Jihadists from the Islamic State group have repeatedly pledged to attack Russia in revenge for its bombing campaign in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad. In a bid to stamp out any problems, strongman Putin has ordered ramped up security measures throughout the World and Confederations Cup.
“All the necessary work is going on to detect and prevent threats,” said Alexei Lavrishchev, the FSB commander in charge of coordinating security.
But it is not just terror that has raised concerns for the tournament. After the brutal scenes in France involving Russian fans last year there were fears that visiting supporters could be in for a tough time.
But both hooligans and Russian authorities say there is almost no chance of a repeat as the police have cracked down on suspected troublemakers with a barrage of searches, detentions and criminal probes.
Moscow has stuck 191 fans on a blacklist barring them from games and introduced legislation to toughen up punishments and deport foreign hooligans.