On Krestovskiy Island, site of the mighty St Petersburg Stadium, is Primorskiy Victory Park, commemorating Russia‘s triumph in World War II.
Once the green belt of old Leningrad, the area was seriously damaged by bombing during the 872-day siege which destroyed the Beloselsky-Belozersky Palace, near where the arena stands.
Now, it merely delivers a pleasant walk to a football ground. There are tree-lined paths, picturesque ponds and fountains and Divo Ostrov, an amusement park. To the right of the greenery and public space, however, is a road, Severnaya Doroga.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino will be hoping this summer’s World Cup in Russia delivers
As will Russia president Vladimir Putin – who needs the spectacle to depict his country well
The nearer it gets to Krestovskiy Stadium, the more forbidding it becomes. The view disappears, obscured by newly-erected high security fences, and access is no longer possible.
This is the route by which FIFA arrive at a World Cup. Not through parkland and pretty scenery, not with the fans, the football family they care so much about, but on an expressway fast track, in the manner of members of the Politburo. In a country that created ZiL lanes in Moscow for government officials – named after the brand of limousine that ferried them to their countryside dachas – this seems not at all unusual.
It illustrates, too, why FIFA are so comfortable taking their tournament to the homes of autocrats. Gianni Infantino and Vladimir Putin; they’ve got more in common than just cheesy promotional videos.
The World Cup starts on Thursday and FIFA need a good one. They want Lionel Messi at the top of his game, they want Brazil to perform, they need an imperious Cristiano Ronaldo and for Spain to swiftly rise above Wednesday’s chaos. A lot is riding on the next 32 days. Not just this World Cup, but the next one, too.
The decisions to favour Russia in 2018 and then Qatar in 2022 are inextricably linked. If Russia is a success, it will feel as if Qatar could also be, against all odds. If Russia disappoints, though, if the football is ordinary, the mood poisonous, if some of the worst fears are realised, the perception of Qatar, and of the governing body, will inevitably suffer as a result.
The Luzhniki Stadium will be the venue for the opening match when Russia face Saudi Arabia
This is a World Cup in a country that has experienced scenes of racism inside its football grounds and has been accused of persecuting homosexuals through its ‘gay propaganda’ laws. There were reports on Wednesday of attacks on two gay French fans in Moscow, leaving one with a fractured jaw and head trauma.
‘Even though the injured are homosexuals, it does not justify the monsters who beat them,’ noted the OperSlil Telegram channel’s report of the incident.
FIFA on Wednesday backed the first three-way World Cup, to be held in Mexico, Canada and the United States, and it is expected this will also be the first to tackle the expanding and unwieldy 48-team format.
Increased revenue is the obvious motive – it always is with Infantino – but the FIFA brand remains toxic. The news that Sepp Blatter will be a guest of President Putin next week is a reminder that this is an organisation still tainted by its legacy of corruption.
The old crooks remain in orbit around this tournament and the men who have replaced them are scarcely more appealing. Infantino, whose every call of late has equated to a naked grab for cash, seems no grand improvement to anyone beyond the sycophants in FIFA’s congress hall.
Disgraced former FIFA president Sepp Blatter will be a guest of President Putin next week
And while the reputation of the World Cup suffers, inevitably the status of international football does as well.
To that end, the seismic news emanating from Spain’s camp near Sochi on Wednesday placed the standing of the national game in awkwardly sharp relief.
The news that the unbeaten manager of Spain, Julen Lopetegui, thought so highly of his position he took the Real Madrid job and gave his employers five minutes notice of the announcement, sums up the new world order. Even Infantino has devoted much of his time of late to muscling in on the wealth of the European leagues through a revamped version of the Club World Cup. If these are FIFA’s priorities, why not Lopetegui’s, too?
What was not anticipated was the furious, some might say petulant, reaction of his employers. The timing of Lopetegui’s dismissal must be among the strangest in World Cup history. To have kept his negotiations a secret from the federation, to have then risked divisions in the camp by taking the Real Madrid contingent into his confidence, alienating those from Barcelona and elsewhere, is without doubt cause for dismissal.
Even so, few would have imagined Lopetegui would be sacked, given that Spain’s opening fixture – against European champions Portugal, no less – was 48 hours away.
Spain sensationally sacked manager Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the World Cup in Russia
In many ways, it shows the reduced state of the international game that the coach was willing to take the chance – or perhaps he, too, did not believe his bosses were capable of such a bold and reckless move.
Spain’s turmoil is more shocking given the immense strides they had previously made in healing regional divisions to at last sit among the best in the world.
While former England players talk of egos, distrust and fissures in the camp caused by club rivalries, Spain have somehow found a way to smooth tensions between the Catalan and Castilian factions in the national team.
With the Catalan independence movement rising, however, Lopetegui’s decision was extraordinarily divisive, risking a return to the days of cliques and friction.
A plea from the players to allow him to stay was dismissed, so wounded was federation president Luis Rubiales by his duplicity.
Spanish football president Luis Rubiales, right, poses with Spain’s new coach Hierro
It helped, perhaps, that the battlefield promotion was Fernando Hierro, winner of 89 caps, plus five league titles and three Champions League trophies with Real Madrid.
Maybe Rubiales also remembered France’s poor campaign at the European Championship in 2004, after Jacques Santini had committed to Tottenham. Either way, Madrid’s claim to be the patriotic arm of La Liga’s big two has taken something of a knock. Why the need for an announcement? Why now?
At least Spain’s implosion distracted from the other big talking point as the opening game neared – the shambolic state of the hosts. They haven’t sacked the manager with 48 hours to go, but they’ve done almost everything else.
Recalled a 38-year-old centre half? Alienated key players, sending them into exile? Ignored youth? Check, check and check.
Only the fact that their first opponents, Saudi Arabia, are seen as possibly the weakest squad in the tournament – and wasn’t that a happy coincidence and not at all suspicious? – is staving off a mood of utter despondency.
Tournament hosts Russia will go into the World Cup as the lowest-ranked of the 32 teams
Saudi Arabia have a Spanish coach, mind, Juan Antonio Pizzi, so anything could happen.
Given the nature of opening games, though, it probably won’t. Russia, roared on by a full house, should win even if the football may not be up to much.
Friday is the day the tournament proper will launch. Mohamed Salah versus Luis Suarez – Liverpool heroes, old and new – Spain versus Portugal, these are the matches FIFA will hope capture imaginations and shake off the grime of the shabby past and the murky trip here. Saturday brings Messi’s first game and the possibility his genius will prevail at what may be his last World Cup – he will be 35 in Qatar, owing to its late start in the calendar year.
The winner invariably comes from among the tournament favourites, but the randomness of Spain’s campaign may now affect that. Certainly, Germany have been in better nick and Argentina’s back line is no match for their forwards. Portugal are the European champions and boast another talismanic presence in Ronaldo, but only Jose Mourinho is talking them up. France have shown promise.
Lionel Messi (left) and Cristiano Ronaldo are the two main attractions at this World Cup
England? Get real. Belgium have the players to deliver but need to rise above the disappointment of the last European Championship and decades of under- achievement.
Brazil last won a European World Cup in Sweden in 1958, but four of their five titles have been away from South America – the full roll call of locations is Europe, South America, Central America, North America and Asia – and every single member of their squad is either playing, or has played, in Europe. After their 7-1 humbling on home soil four years ago, Brazil may be on a road to redemption.
Ensconced in their limousines, skirting St Petersburg’s Victory Park at speed, FIFA’s executives will hope for the same.
Neymar (left) and Luis Suarez will be hoping to lead Brazil and Uruguay to another World Cup