Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking during a news conference after the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Qingdao on Sunday. Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
It's almost here.

Despite the naysayers, the heated geo-politics and overt racism in the host country, Russia is on the verge of hosting its biggest event, the World Cup, which begins on Thursday. The tournament always heralds new stars and confirms existing reputations, but the focus will stretch far beyond the field.

Given Russia's place in the modern world and president Vladimir Putin’s determined push to reshape his country's image, visitors and TV viewers will be curious to see what sort of party the Russians throw.

The portents are vexing. The Kremlin has never been big on stamping out racism or homophobia and LGBT rights and human rights have seldom concentrated politicians’ minds. As recently as last month, France's Paul Pogba had to endure the sound of monkey noises during a match against Russia.

Gay fans might also run into problems. Cossack vigilantes, who have generously promised to put away their nagaika (whips) while on horseback, say they will report to police if they spot same-sex couples kissing in public. Hooliganism is a popular pastime among soccer ultras with various firms causing havoc, most obviously at the 2016 European championship. Fighting often spills over in domestic matches too.

There's also political tension in the air over Russia's subversive involvement in the US election and the curious case of the nine prominent Russians who have died in mysterious circumstances since 2016. The finger, as ever, points to the Kremlin.

Much like in 2010, when SA politicians helped quell doubts over crime and security, Putin has assured visitors that Russia will be safe, friendly even. One thing the former KGB operative will be cracking down hard on is hooligans. Already, security agents have paid discreet visits to the homes of known troublemakers, making it clear that jail beckons if they step out of line. Militia will be everywhere. Russia's reputation depends on it.

Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium will host the first match of #Russia2018 Group A: Russia v Saudi Arabia. Photo: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Not that Ronaldo is taking their word. He has hired an ex-MMA fighter and paratrooper to look after him in the wake of ISIS threatening to cut off his head at the World Cup. Such is the mad world we inhabit.

Indeed, this past week, Nigeria's Nkwankwo Kanu was robbed of $11000 at Sheremetyevo airport while on his way to an exhibition match in Kaliningrad, proving that there is still work to be done protecting visitors.

Everywhere is being cleaned up to present a shiny, happy face to the world. One initiative has seen a death squad killing stray dogs, some of which ride the Metro underground all day. Denials have come thick and fast, but the corpses continue to pile up.

Happily, the dozen stadiums across the 11 host cities are ready thanks to the government splashing cash sprucing them up. Total costs for hosting the tournament sit at a staggering $11.8billion, enough to buy a top player or three.

However, no amount of money can alter the fact that the Russian team itself looks threadbare. They're ranked 66th and have lost three of their last four matches. They drew with Turkey on Tuesday. Not that this will deter local fans from embracing the World Cup. Soccer is king in Russia and locals will be determined to help ensure the event is a success.

There's even a move to ensure fans enjoy decent beer, Russia's standards watchdog having issued a set of recommendations for beer quality. “Experts recommend paying attention to the foam: if it remains for less than three minutes, it means the beer is not of the highest quality,” Russia's standards watchdog earnestly said in a statement on Monday.

For all the concerns, fans determined to have a good time won't be disappointed. Public transport is solid, Russian culture itself is fascinating and, once niceties are done, visitors will discover that most locals are warm and accommodating and immensely proud of their motherland. There's plenty to see and do, and the common bond of soccer will ensure that friends  and memories  are made.

The soccer itself has much to recommend. Neymar is flying again. Mo Salah ought to be okay and Messi is in great nick. All the usual suspects are among the favourites, guaranteeing high-quality action.


Sunday Tribune

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