The FIFA World Cup kicked off today in Russia, the start of a five-week "celebration filled with elite competition on the field and concern for intolerance in the stands and streets," according to a front-page piece by Martin Rogers of USA TODAY. Russia in the lead-up to the tournament has "turned on the charm," all the way from President Vladimir Putin down. Putin in a video that was released last week said, "We've done everything to ensure our guests, sportsmen, experts, and, of course, fans feel at home in Russia." Rogers notes Putin has "no great love for soccer, but he understands the value of international sporting events as exercises in propaganda." Even Putin's "fiercest critics expect the tournament to go off with barely a hitch, not because Russia has fixed its problems but because its leader is hard-line enough to quell resistance by whatever means necessary." Putin "drafted his ferocious Cossack militia enforcers to patrol Moscow in a bid to avoid unrest." But whether the show of force is "designed to scare or reassure fans is unsure" (USA TODAY, 6/14). The WALL STREET JOURNAL's Anatoly Kurmanaev wrote the World Cup is a chance for Putin to "showcase Russia's economic progress and recovered international confidence during his 19-year-rule, despite growing isolation from the West." It is also an "opportunity to present an image of the country as a rising geopolitical power broker amid a haphazard U.S. foreign policy" under President Trump (WSJ.com, 6/13). In N.Y., Rory Smith writes the "long wait" for this year's World Cup was "never really about the sport." For Russia, it has been about "flexing the nation's muscles, proving to its people as much as to its rivals that it can deliver the world's most-watched sporting spectacle just as well as any of its detractors and foes could." For everyone else, much of the focus has "been on anything but the sport" (N.Y. TIMES, 6/14).
HOPING FOR SMOOTH SAILING: The GUARDIAN's Andrew Roth writes the "main intrigue of Russia's World Cup will likely be how Russia's regional cities cope with the influx of tens of thousands of fans, many of them seeing foreign tourists on this scale for the first time in their history." Security "will be extreme." The Kremlin deep down "may still hope that a successful tournament will earn recognition." But the "real concern is not screwing up" (GUARDIAN, 6/14). The GLOBE & MAIL's Cathal Kelly wrote, "Welcome to the World Cup nobody wants. At this point, not even Russia." Putin has "made that pretty plain." He has been a "peripheral figure in the lead-up, making little secret of the fact that the tournament features two things he doesn't like -- soccer and strangers." It is "hard to blame Putin for his growing lack of enthusiasm." There are "several ways this thing can go wrong, some more likely than others." The first is "organizational chaos." Russia has "managed to get the stadiums completed in good time." It has the infrastructure, although it is "unlikely to be strained" (GLOBE & MAIL, 6/9). The GLOBE & MAIL's John Doyle wrote this is a "rogue World Cup." It was from the "moment Russia won the bid to hold it and it has continued to be just that -- outlandish." The "chicanery and the cast of characters in the story almost preclude the possibility of rational thinking." Doyle: "You already know many of the characters from daily television news" (GLOBE & MAIL, 6/9).
ISSUES OF RACISM: In DC, Amie Ferris-Rotman wrote "widespread and open racism in Russia prompted FIFA ... to adopt new measures at this tournament." For the "first time in its 88-year history, it has given referees the right to interrupt or call off a game if there are racist chants or slurs." Some "worry that is not enough." England D Danny Rose last week said that he has "urged his family not to come and see him play in Russia, fearful they would suffer racist abuse." FIFA earlier this year fined Russia's soccer federation after an exhibition match against France in St. Petersburg "turned nasty when Russian fans yelled racist chants at some of France's top players." Russia's national team was also "fined for racist fan behavior at the last two European Championships" (WASHINGTON POST, 6/13). In L.A., Baxter & Ayres cited research by London-based Fare Network and Moscow's Sova Center showing the "prevalence of neo-Nazi songs and monkey chants aimed at visiting black players more than doubled over the last two seasons in Russia, where homophobia has been codified into law" (L.A. TIMES, 6/13).