Mike Rowbottom ©insidethegames

The FIFA Confederations Cup, the 10th version of which will start in St Petersburg on Saturday (June 17), became a quadrennial event in 2005. Since then, it has been held in countries due to host the FIFA World Cup finals the following year.

As a predictor of World Cup winners, this eight-team tournament involving all six regional champions, the World Cup holders and prospective hosts has been conspicuously unsuccessful. Brazil has won the last three Confederation Cups without managing to reach any of the subsequent World Cup finals. 

But as a dress rehearsal for the hosting of world football’s premier event, it has proved considerably more effective.

Which is why the gaze of the football world will fall with keen interest on Russia as the home nation prepares for an opening match against the Oceania Football Confederation champions, New Zealand, at the Krestovsky Stadium in St Petersburg - one of four 2018 World Cup finals venues being used for Confederations Cup games.

Recent sporting history suggests that Russia will do - and pay - whatever it takes to complete the required preparations in time for next year’s World Cup finals, which will run from June 14 to July 15. Setting aside the grievous doping charges that have subsequently beleaguered and diminished the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, there can be no disputing the state of readiness of those Games sites and infrastructure.

That came at a record cost, with the overall figure being quoted as $51 million (£40 million/€45.5 million), but the subsequent budget report indicated that only a fifth of that total was directly related to the Games, with the rest being devoted to urban and regional regeneration and the conversion of the Sochi region, traditionally a Black Sea summer holiday location, into an all-round sea and Alpine resort.

Lucas shows the FIFA Confederations Cup trophy to home fans in the Maracana Stadium after Brazil's third consecutive victory in the competition in 2013 - but on each occasion they failed to make the following year's World Cup final ©Getty Images
Lucas shows the FIFA Confederations Cup trophy to home fans in the Maracana Stadium after Brazil's third consecutive victory in the competition in 2013 - but on each occasion they failed to make the following year's World Cup final ©Getty Images

For all the resources of the Russian Government, the scale of the commitment offered to FIFA in 2010, when Russia were awarded the 2018 finals in a joint announcement that also handed the 2022 finals to Qatar, has been significantly reduced in the interim.

The initial Russian proposal was to host the World Cup finals in 13 host cities and 16 stadiums - 13 of which would be brand new, with the remaining three being renovated.

In 2011, Russia decreased the number of prospective stadiums from 16 to 14 and less than a year later the final proposal became 11 cities and 12 stadiums.

Sepp Blatter, the then FIFA President, stated in July 2014 that due to concerns over the completion of venues in Russia, the number of venues for the tournament may be reduced from 12 to 10. He then referenced similar concerns that had dogged the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa, adding: "We are not going to be in a situation, as is the case of one, two or even three stadiums in South Africa, where it is a problem of what you do with these stadiums."

That final reduction has not been deemed necessary, but progress in recent years has been anything other than smooth with continuing concerns being raised over venues, security and the likelihood of hooliganism.

In March this year, the four Confederations Cup venues - the Krestovsky Stadium, Kazan Arena, Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi and Spartak Stadium in Moscow - passed final inspection by a joint delegation from FIFA and the Russia 2018 Organising Committee, led by the FIFA director of competitions Colin Smith and the Organising Committee's Chief Executive Alexey Sorokin.

On March 3 and 4, via a virtual tour and presentations in Moscow, the joint delegation was also able to assess the updated operational plans of all the other World Cup venues in Volgograd, Rostov-on-Don, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Moscow, Yekaterinburg, Saransk and Kaliningrad.

“It was our final inspection tour immediately preceding the Confederations Cup, the last chance for all experts to come together and see how the preparations for the tournament are going directly at the stadiums, to tackle all operational issues,” said Sorokin. "In general, we are happy with the progress achieved at the Confederations Cup venues. Thanks to the participation of local authorities, huge work has been completed.”

Sepp Blatter, who as FIFA President in 2014 warned that Russia might need to reduce its total of stadiums to stage the 2018 World Cup finals from 12 to 10 ©Getty Images
Sepp Blatter, who as FIFA President in 2014 warned that Russia might need to reduce its total of stadiums to stage the 2018 World Cup finals from 12 to 10 ©Getty Images

The qualifying clause “in general” references, among other things, a nightmarish sequence of events concerning the development of the St Petersburg stadium.

At one point, FIFA was considering taking the Confederations Cup matches scheduled for the Krestovsky Stadium, which is also due to host the final on July 2, away from the city due to construction concerns.

Back in April 2014, Sorokin was expansive on the topic of Russia’s imminent football infrastructure revolution. "There are very ambitious tasks and very ambitious achievements that we are looking to carry out,” he told insideworldfootball.com.

“Everything is well on schedule. Two stadiums in Kazan and Sochi are ready and Spartak’s stadium will be opened on July 24 this year. Next year the stadium in St. Petersburg will be ready for use and then gradually we will see the other stadiums opened. Everything is on schedule. We do not need to worry at the moment.”

But St Petersburg’s Krestovsky Stadium was not ready for use in 2015 or 2016. In fact, it was not until April 22 this year that a venue whose construction, officially “in progress” since 2006, has been marred by delays, allegations of corruption and reports of human rights violations actually hosted a football match.

While Zenit St Petersburg were able to play their first match at their new stadium, beating Ural 2-0, the crowd capacity was only 20,000, with spectators restricted to part of the lower tier.

Since then, work has continued to bring the stadium up to its target capacity of 68,000 in time for the impending Confederations Cup opener. Zenit, meanwhile, are preparing to return to their old venue, the Stadion Petrovskiy, next season as the Krestovsky undergoes further World Cup preparations.

Meanwhile, Zenit have asked that the stadium, scheduled to be their permanent home from season 2018-2019, should not yet be called the Zenit Arena because they don't yet want to be associated with it.

Earlier this year a major tender worth almost a billion rubles had to be cancelled following charges of illegal conduct. Parts of the hospitality area have had to be demolished because they were judged to be sub-standard.

A fan stands in front of an
A fan stands in front of an "I love Zenit" display at the problematic Krestovsky Stadium in St Petersburg ahead of its first scheduled match on April 22 this year. This year's FIFA Confederations Cup will begin and end there ©Getty Images

And then there was a scandal regarding more than 110 North Korean workers brought in to speed the construction process who were reported to be operating in slave-like conditions.

Last month, it emerged that the FIFA President, Gianni Infantino, had responded to an enquiry on the topic by four Presidents from Nordic Football Associations.

In his letter dated Monday May 22, Infantino said: “FIFA is aware of and firmly condemns the often appalling labour conditions under which North Korean workers are employed in various countries around the world.”

He acknowledged that an inspection team for FIFA's “Decent Work Monitoring System”, set up to address concerns about human rights abuses, did find “strong evidence for the presence of North Korean workers on the construction site in St Petersburg” on a visit in November.

“The issues found were subsequently raised with the respective company and with the general contractor,” Infantino added.

A further inspection carried out in March found no more North Korean workers employed at the site, he said.

As if this all this was not enough, part of the Krestovsky Stadium pitch died after being left unattended for months. The situation was exacerbated by the fact that the roof had remained closed for too long, restricting sunlight and ventilation.

Even before problems with the grass arose, organisers had to surmount issues with the stadium’s retractable pitch technology which caused the playing surface to vibrate.

Uprooted chunks of turf marred the stadium’s opening match. As a result, a new pitch has had be laid at the stadium less than a month before the Confederations Cup.

The problems related to the Krestovsky Stadium make those involved in converting the Fisht Olympic arena appear small in comparison, but they have been considerable.

Reconfiguration after the 2014 Sochi Olympics in order to meet FIFA specifications, including removing the stadium’s temporary dome and adding new seating to either end, was delayed.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a visit to FC Krasnodar last month ©Getty Images
FIFA President Gianni Infantino with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a visit to FC Krasnodar last month ©Getty Images

In May, the stadium officially opened for football by hosting the Russian Cup final and witnessed an extraordinary running brawl involving the majority of players from both teams in the closing minutes of Lokomotiv Moscow’s 2-0 win over FC Ural Yekaterinburg which provoked a pitch invasion by rival fans.

An ill-omened start for a stadium whose long-term use, given the lack of any suitable club nearby, appears uncertain in all but one respect – it will be expensive to maintain.

At the time Sorokin spoke of Russia’s vaulting football ambitions there were only two months to go until the first match of the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil, and there remained concerns over four of the host country’s venues.

Of the eight stadia at which construction is still in progress, all are scheduled to be completed by the end of 2017.

The Luzhniki Stadium, centrepiece of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and more recently employed to host the 2013 International Association of Athletics Federations’ World Championships, is retaining its old shell but being transformed within to a capacity of more than 80,000.

Temperatures falling to below minus 30oC in January hindered work on the venerable stadium, but the Deputy Mayor Marat Khusnullin maintained the project would be delivered on time and that the main construction had already been accomplished.

Two of the World Cup stadium utilise cable roofs - the Central Stadium in Yekaterinburg, which installed its roof in December, and the Volgograd Arena, which is due to have its roof installed this month ahead of a planned completion date of November 26.

The Kaliningrad Stadium, which will be covered in perforated blue metal plates, is also on course, with roof structure compete and the majority of the stands also ready.

In February, Russia increased its government spending on the 2018 World Cup by 19.1 billion rubles (£263 million/$355 million/€299 million) according to documents published on a Government website. Total spend on the World Cup is now heading towards $10.8 billion (£8.5 billion/€9.6 billion).

The 2018 World Cup Organising Committee did not indicate specifically what the increased spend would cover, but reports claimed that the document said the money would be targeted at construction or refits of World Cup-related facilities, effectively one final heave towards the finishing line.

Renovation work in progress during March this year on the roof of the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, which will be re-configured within its original shell by the end of this year ahead of serving as one of the 12 stadiums for the 2018 World Cup finals ©Getty Images
Renovation work in progress during March this year on the roof of the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, which will be re-configured within its original shell by the end of this year ahead of serving as one of the 12 stadiums for the 2018 World Cup finals ©Getty Images

Michal Karas, editor-in-chief of StadiumDB.com, offered insidethegames the following overview: "As things stand, Russia has five stadiums officially handed over, the national Luzhniki being this week's latest one. FIFA's preference is to have all venues ready a year in advance but both sides had already agreed for a half-year period before the World Cup. Unless something unexpected happens, such as the recent workers' strike in Rostov, it seems all venues should be ready by the end of 2017. A slight delay of several weeks would also be acceptable for FIFA, based on previous tournaments.

"Recent months have certainly been more optimistic in terms of progress than the entire four years since Russia was granted the hosting rights in 2010. In 2011-2014 we had seen almost only issues and delays, many of them huge. After all, the designs of Kaliningrad and Rostov stadia had to be created from scratch to make them far cheaper and easier to build than the original ones. For the first time in years, FIFA green-lighted stadiums with a net capacity significantly smaller than 40,000. Both Yekaterinburg and Kaliningrad will only hold crowds of 35,000. Economic crises along the way forced serious cuts but overall there's no fear that the Russian stadiums will be sub-standard, even if some of them may be less impressive than expected.

"At present the main structures of all the Russian 2018 World Cup finals host stadiums are ready and we can see almost daily progress. In May the Rostov stadium received its membrane roof, just a few days ago the cable roof was lifted into position in Volgograd, while the spaceship-like dome in Samara is nearing completion. In other words: the biggest tasks at each of the stadiums are almost over, and over the next six months before the agreed delivery dates there will be a focus around infrastructure and equipment of the buildings.

"The most problematic projects used to be Kaliningrad, Rostov and Yekaterinburg but even they seem to be moving safely towards the finish line. While aesthetics in each of these cases can be seen as debatable, it's worth noting that all of them became very pragmatic during their redesign process.

"Far more problematic than delivery of the stadiums themselves is their legacy use. Sochi is almost destined to be an expensive white elephant while several other stadiums appear to have extremely little chance of being filled even to half capacity on a regular basis. While the plan was for Russian football to grow with the addition of some of the world's best stadia, a look at what's already happening in Moscow (Lokomotiv, Spartak and CSKA) or Kazan (Rubin) shows that the demand for such large stadia simply isn't there. And if the most successful teams from Moscow and Saint Petersburg seem unlikely to make proper use of their new homes, it will surely prove even more challenging in Nizhny Novgorod or Volgograd."

It has been reported by insideworldfootball.com that federal funding will make up about 55 per cent of the total spend on the 2018 World Cup.

External sponsorship for the 2018 World Cup finals has been spasmodic, although recent announcements of deals with Qatar Airways, VIVO and Hisense have lifted spirits in recent weeks.

The VIVO deal is thought to be worth up to $70 million (£55 million/€62.5 million) per annum, with all deals going up to the end of 2022.

Thus there are currently four dedicated FIFA World Cup sponsors - Hisense, VIVO, Budweiser and McDonald’s.

FIFA’s commercial strategy offers as many as four regional supporter packages connected with the 2018 World Cup finals for each of the five global regions: Europe, North America, South America, the Middle East and Africa as well as Asia.

“FIFA has observed a growing interest in this new regional sponsorship approach, which offers companies that do not necessarily want to enter into global sponsorship packages a chance to be part of the FIFA World Cup and benefit from a significant regional presence,” says FIFA.com.

But so far, only one local sponsor, Alfabank, has taken up this opportunity, which is becoming a real concern for the organisers.

Alexey Sorokin, Chief Executive of the 2018 World Cup finals organising committee, remains confident that Russia's
Alexey Sorokin, Chief Executive of the 2018 World Cup finals organising committee, remains confident that Russia's "ambitious" programme of building is still on track ©Getty Images

In the meantime, Russia has boosted security measures in the wake of the bombing on the St Petersburg metro in April that left 16 people dead. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) has said terrorism will not pose a threat to Confederations Cup participants and spectators.

A decree signed by President Vladimir Putin last month sparked outrage among Kremlin critics after it imposed tighter restrictions on public gatherings and limited the use of airspace and waterways over a 42-day period covering the Confederations Cup.

The decree also requires that foreigners be registered with Russian authorities within one day of their arrival in the country.

The limits on public gatherings, which will also be in force during the World Cup, meaning that all rallies, pickets and protests unrelated to soccer in the host cities’ regions can take place only at times and locations approved by the authorities.

Following violent clashes between Russian and English fans tarnished at the European Championship in France last year, Putin has approved legislation that toughens punishments for violence at sporting events as part of a broader crackdown on hooliganism.

The authorities say the Confederations Cup’s ticketing system, which requires ticket holders to apply for a personalised fan-ID, will ensure that fans are screened and hooligans kept away.

“Citizens who have committed gross legal violations during sporting events, demonstrated racism, set off fireworks, broken furniture, tried to start fights, are under our unwinking, constant stare,” Anton Gusev, deputy head of the interior ministry department overseeing security at sports venues, told reporters.

“This also pertains to foreign soccer hooligans.”

The ministry has blacklisted 191 fans, including 54 spectators involved in the pitch invasion at the Russia Cup final in Sochi.

Sorokin’s most recent utterance has been in reaction to the announcement by Joachim Low, coach of the World Cup holders Germany, who are well on their way to qualifying for next year’s Finals, that they would be sending a squad to Russia for the forthcoming Confederations Cup which did not include many of their most celebrated players.

"The heart of a football fan bleeds when the reigning World Cup winner plays without stars," Sorokin said. "They are the reason the fans attend matches. But we need to accept it."

If this proves ultimately to be the worst of the problems facing the 2017 Federations Cup, Russia’s World Cup organisers will be able to sigh with relief as they looks ahead to next year’s big event.