Relief for Russia in Confederations Cup opener
2018 World Cup hosts cross hurdles in opener but empty seats remain a concern
Russia demonstrated that one of their most problematic World Cup pitches was fit for international matches after the national football team won the opening match of the Confederations Cup yesterday morning (Singapore time).
The 2018 World Cup hosts convincingly beat New Zealand 2-0 at the St Petersburg Stadium in front of 50,251 people, including Russia President Vladimir Putin and Fifa chief Gianni Infantino.
Putin welcomed fans to what he called a "big football festival" and thanked Infantino and Fifa for the faith they had shown in Russia.
"The fact the leader of the country came to the match is on one hand an additional positive, but it is also an additional responsibility," said Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov, whose team face Portugal on Wednesday.
"We coped with the task before us," he added.
Russia were under pressure to perform on home soil after slipping to a record low 63rd in Fifa's world rankings this month, and this win was a much-needed shot in the arm.
Midfielder Denis Glushakov flicked the ball over Kiwi goalkeeper Stefan Marinovic in the 31st minute as New Zealand defenders rushed back to try to clear it off the line.
New Zealand's Michael Boxall got a touch on the ball and was credited with an own goal.
Russia's Fedor Smolov then tapped in a low cross by teammate Alexander Samedov in the 69th minute to seal the win.
Off the pitch, the country faced even more scrutiny over issues in the run-up to the two-week tournament.
The 68,000-seater St Petersburg Stadium will be a flagship venue at next year's World Cup and the home of Russian powerhouse Zenit, but its decade-long construction marred by corruption allegations and delays has caused more disappointment than satisfaction.
“Judging by the game, it seemed the quality (of the pitch) was rather good. It allowed us to play.”Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov, quashing concerns over the quality of the pitch at the St Petersburg Stadium
A new pitch had to be hastily laid before yesterday morning's kick-off, after uprooted chunks of grass and bare spots on the field spoiled the first match held at the new venue in April.
Before the problems with the grass, issues with the stadium's retractable pitch technology made the playing surface vibrate and rendered it unfit for matches.
But, yesterday morning, the pitch survived without noticeable damage.
"Judging by the game, it seemed the quality (of the pitch) was rather good. It allowed us to play," Cherchesov said.
After clashes between Russian and English fans marred last year's European Championship, Putin adopted legislation toughening punishments for stadium violence as part of a broader crackdown on hooliganism.
The Russian interior ministry has since blacklisted 292 fans, effectively banning them from attending official sporting events.
Russian fan leader Alexander Shprygin, who was deported from France during Euro 2016, told Reuters on Saturday that he had been barred from attending his country's match against New Zealand just a few hours before kick-off.
He said Confederations Cup organisers had notified him that his fan-ID, needed to attend matches, had been cancelled in what appeared to be a further attempt to curb violence.
Russian authorities insist that the Confederations Cup's ticketing system, which requires ticket holders to apply for a personalised fan ID, ensures that all fans are screened and troublemakers are kept away.
Fifa has also implemented a three-step procedure at the Confederations Cup that allows referees to stop matches in the event of racist or discriminatory incidents.
At yesterday morning's game, there were two pre-game stadium announcements warning fans against discriminatory behaviour.
Fifa general secretary Fatma Samoura said last Friday that the estimated attendance for the tournament would be 65 per cent, and that Russia's match against Portugal had been sold out for weeks.
But empty seats remain a concern, with Russia's Sport Express reporting that some tickets were being handed out to state workers for free in a bid to fill the stands at an upcoming Confederations Cup match in Kazan.
The tournament's organising committee told Reuters it is allowing "underprivileged Russian fans" to attend matches for free. - REUTERS