(NEW YORK) — Fans and stars of international soccer are arriving in Russia as the country prepares for the World Cup that kicks off on Thursday.
The month long tournament will begin with Russia playing Saudi Arabia in Moscow. National teams have been arriving for the past week, spreading out to team bases across the 11 cities that are hosting the tournament, from Sochi on the Black Sea to Ekaterinburg on the western edge of Siberia.
Russian authorities have said they expect around one million fans to visit. In Moscow on Tuesday, small groups were beginning to appear around the city in brightly-colored national dress.
A massive fan zone, capable of holding 25,000 people, has been constructed in the shadow of the Stalinist skyscraper of Moscow State University, looking out over the city’s main Luzhniki stadium, where the World Cup final will be played. A viewing area has been set up on Red Square by the Kremlin, more widely known abroad for the tank parades that roll across it each year.
Just off the square on Tuesday, a small crowd of pleased and bemused-looking Russians watched as a group of elderly Brazilian fans played drum music and sang. Most of the fans nearby were from South American countries, such as Peru, Columbia and Uruguay. Thousands of Americans (DELfans) are still expected to travel, with over 88,000 tickets sold to U.S. fans, despite their team’s failure to qualify.
More visible than the fans so far in Moscow was the massive security presence being deployed to guard the event against fan trouble, and in particular Islamic terrorism. Thousands of extra police have been called up from all over the country and there are extra patrols in many areas.
Concerns about security have been prominent, with attention particularly focused on potential violence from Russian soccer hooligans, who ran amok at the last major international competition involving Russia, the 2016 European Championship in France. But worries that Russia could see a repeat of the chaotic street battles that took place in Marseilles there have been overblown amid an intense crackdown by Russian security services against the hooligan groups.
Hooligans have described to ABC News receiving calls and house visits from police and officers from the FSB security service informing them to behave. They said their groups’ leaders are under surveillance, with their phones tapped.
Zhenya, a veteran members of a hooligan group that supports CSKA Moscow and who didn’t not want to give his full name for fear of repercussions, told ABC News how armed police had raided his house as a warning.
A wave of arrests last year has also chilled the violent fan scene, while anti-hooligan practices long common in Europe, such as stadium bans have been introduced.
“The movement is effectively paralyzed,” Ivan ‘Il Duche’, a well-known former fan leader, told ABC News.
Under such pressure, over a dozen former and active hooligans told ABC News that they expect no major violence.
A more serious threat, though, is terrorism. Russia is heavily engaged in the Syrian civil war and is still battling a simmering Islamist insurgency in in its own southern regions, and jihadist groups have threatened to target the World Cup. Moscow has not suffered a major attack in recent years, but last year a man detonated a bomb on the subway in St. Petersburg, killing 13. In recent months, the FSB has said it has thwarted several plots tied to the Islamic State targeting the World Cup.
For fans arriving in Russia, the most trouble they have faced so far is likely to be the eye-watering prices for accommodation some have had to pay. As at previous World Cups, landlords and hotel-owners have been hiking their rates, with modest hotel rooms going for sometimes thousands of dollars a night. Russia’s consumer watchdog in April said it had fined 539 hotels in different host cities for inflating their prices during the World Cup.
The Cup has awoken an entrepreneurial spirit in some locals. One man on Airbnb advertised a small wooden ‘lean-to’ shack that he has built on the roof of his garage. The shed—which has strict guest rules—is going for $315 per night.
For those fans travelling, they will have to embark on daunting journeys to see their teams, which are spread across huge distances, even with the tournament confined to European Russia. Aspion Tang, a 19 year-old Danish fan, said he would take an 18-hour train journey from Samara to Saransk.
“It’ll be exciting,” he said. “A real unknown.”
The tournament’s opening on Thursday will likely prove to be a relief for the Kremlin, which has weathered calls for the World Cup to be boycotted or stripped from Russia amid a stream of crises in recent years, as Russia has clashed with Europe over its invasion of Crimea, the Syrian war and election meddling. Even as the World Cup begins, Russia is facing international criticism over its imprisonment of a Ukrainian film director, Oleg Sentsov, who is on hunger strike and whose jailing has been denounced by rights groups as politically motivated.
Excitement has been building among Russian fans. Some of the sport’s most famous stars have been drawing crowds at their training bases. In the small town of Bronnitsy outside Moscow, several thousand people reportedly arrived at (A) tiny training school to try to watch Lionel Messi, voted the best player in the world five times, train with his Argentinian teammates.
“We are a friendly people,” said Alla Zaitsev, 72, a pensioner watching the Brazilian fans in Moscow, describing how supporters would be welcomed.
“We love people. We love our country. We love our Putin.”
While anticipation grows in Russia ahead of Thursday’s opening, there is one area where Russians have no expectations— the national team’s prospects. Russia is now the lowest-ranked team in the tournament, below even their first opponents Saudi Arabia, having failed to win any of their last 7 games and managing only a single shot on target in the past two.
Pundits have noted that Russia’s other opponents in its group— Egypt and Uruguay— are conveniently weak sides for the hosts, but a recent poll of by the magazine Sports Express found fewer than 50 percent of Russian fans expect the team to make it to the play-offs.
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