Hooligans, hackers and discrimination: These are the things that have been making the headlines ahead of the 2018 World Cup. Russian officials, though, say fans should feel welcome and safe. So what should they expect?
Red and blue FIFA flags flutter in the wind around Moscow. And Russia has completed its preparations and is truly ready to host the 2018 World Cup. Even the stadium in the Volga-city of Samara is now finally finished after delays and cost overruns – with grass imported from Germany. For Russia, the 2018 World Cup is a chance to present a friendly face to the world, and President Vladimir Putin's tone reflects this.
"I would like the World Cup 2018 to be a celebration for everyone who loves sports – for the footballers and for our guests," he said recently on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg Economic Forum. "We will do everything to make sure that the fans and the specialists and the players feel at home in Russia."
For outsiders, though, visiting Russia might not seem like such a welcoming prospect. The country has often been at loggerheads with the West in recent years.Russian hackers continue to make headlines, the country has laws discriminating against the LGBT community, and, there have been sporadic reports of racist chants at football matches – as well as the violent clashes between Russian and English fans in France that took place two years ago.
So what can visiting football fan expect from the 2018 World Cup?
Safety by decree
Russian authorities insist that the World Cup will be safe. As early as May 2017, a special presidential decree detailed "increased safety measures" for both the Confederations Cup last year and the World Cup.
The security measures include a long list of restrictions: on the sale of weapons and dangerous chemicals, but also on selling and drinking alcohol.
For a two-month period, all demonstrations and public events in World Cup cities that are not football-related must be authorized not only by the local authorities and police as usual – but also by the Russian secret service, the FSB. In host cities, there will be increased checks at train stations, airports and in the metro.
Cooperation is key
Russian officials insist that security is a shared endeavor. Speaking at aFIFA press conference, Aleksei Lavrishchev, the deputy head of the FSB, stressed that "no one [ministry] can guarantee the security at an event like this on its own."
Lavrishchev is in charge of a special World Cup inter-ministerial command center, which includes representatives from the Interior Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry and the Sports Ministry. Officials say that along with the police, a broad range of official security forces will work at the World Cup – and will be supplemented by private security companies hired by the Russian Organizing Committee and by FIFA.
Years of preparation and experience with events such as the Sochi Olympics mean that Russia is ready to "to preempt and intercept any type of security threats regardless of where they are coming from," Lavrishchev said.
Presumably that includes cyberspace. But according to cybersecurity expert Oleg Demidov from the PIR Center, a non-governmental research organization, hacking "is always a risk."
"However, Russia is taking the organization of the World Cup quite seriously – and separate measures are being taken to guarantee information security and cybersecurity," he said.
Though Russian officials point out that there will be a high level of international cooperation between security agencies and police services at the World Cup, Demidov believes that the current "break-down in [international] trust" could make work to resolve cyber-threats less effective.
"The Russian government [...] can certainly fend off an attack and minimize its effects for users, for citizens and for guests of the World Cup. But there is always the question of investigating an attack. And that usually requires transnational cooperation."
Keeping tabs on the hooligans
The thought of Russian football fans themselves can also feel less than comforting. It may call to mind the violence of at Euro 2016 in Marseille, when 150 Russian hooligans clashed with English fans.
Ahead of the tournament, Russian security forces have taken several measures to get the nation's hooligan scene under control – including what seems to be a name and shame policy. Since the clashes in Marseille, the Russian Interior Ministry has kept a public blacklist of football fans banned from attending games. Two months before the World Cup, the list included over 450 names.
Along with the blacklist, the FIFA Fan ID that Russian authorities are requiring that all World Cup ticket holders to have is another "filtering" system to keep tabs on who enters the stadium. Andrei Chernyenko, a senior official from the Ministry of Communication and Mass Media told reporters recently that "the Fan ID is one of the most important security measures."
A ticket to Siberia
Pavel Klymenko has been researching the Russian football hooligan scene as part of his work for the Fare network, which pushes to tackle discrimination in football. Klymenko says the security services also spoke to leaders of hooligan groups in the run-up to the World Cup, to convince them to keep a low profile during the tournament.
"Russian security services are not people you want to mess with. Some of [the hooligans] were given pretty straightforward choices: Either you take a long holiday during the World Cup or we'll organize you an even longer holiday somewhere in Siberia," Klymenko told DW. But he also warned that it's unclear how far individual warnings can go, since the hooligan scene "is much more decentralized than it seems."
As in many other countries, elements of the Russian fan scene are also known for their nationalistic and right-wing tendencies.
"The problem is quite serious," Klymenko said. "If you look at the fan scene in Russian football, most of them are dominated by far-right groups – and incidents of racism and the display of neo-Nazi symbols happens quite often in the Russian league."
At the beginning of the year, Spartak Moscow were sanctioned after a Tweet referred to the club's black players as "chocolates melting in the sun" at a training session. In March, FIFA fined the Russian Football Association 30,000 Swiss francs ($30,000, €26,000) over racist chants heard at a friendly between Russia and France.
A whole different game
A Fare network report shows there were 89 "racist and far-right incidents" at Russian games in the 2016-2017 season. This is only a marginal decrease from 2014-15 (92 incidents).
Fare does, however, note that Russia’s football scene and authorities are making an effort to curb racism and racist symbolism.
"It's hard to say whether a racist incident can happen in the stadiums because the World Cup presents a very different environment from the regular domestic league games. It is way more regulated and televised," Klymenko said.
"But you cannot exclude that on the sidelines in one of the cities, far from the city center, ethnic minority or LGBT fans might be racially abused or subjected to hate-inspired attacks."
Rainbow flags welcome?
The situation is contradictory for the LGBT community. In 2013, the so-called gay-propaganda law banned any public expression of "non-traditional sexual relations" to minors. Meanwhile FIFA's 2018 "Sustainability Strategy" guarantees the tournament is inclusive to everyone, regardless of "sexual orientation."
On the question of whether LGBT fans would be able to hold hands or kiss in stadiums and fan zones during the World Cup, Russia's Organizing Committee stated that any "expression of feelings" that doesn’t "disturb public order […] is a natural and indispensable part of football." The tournament's anti-discrimination officer Alexei Smertin has also stated that "there won't be a ban on carrying rainbow symbols in Russia."
A short-term concession
However, Aleksandr Agapov, the president of Russia's LGBT sports federation, told DW that these guarantees are hardly a cause for celebration in a country in which "negative behavior towards members of the LGBT community is seen as the norm."
"The Organizing Committee can only answer for the territory it is in charge of," Agapov explained. "When it comes to safety on the streets, it's hard to say how safe it is [for the LGBT community]."
He worries that the World Cup Organizing Committee has merely pushed the Russian public to accept the LGBT community as "a concession for the guests, a form of hospitality."
Still, Agapov hopes that the World Cup can help the Russian LGBT community become more visible within the country, where many people believe LGBT issues are a purely Western phenomenon.
"Russian television will probably try to avoid showing rainbow flags in live broadcasts," the activist said. "Maybe millions won't see those flags on television - but thousands will see them at the stadiums."