The 2017 Fifa Confederations Cup is underway in Russia, bringing together eight of the world’s leading national teams for 16 games across four venues and culminating in a final in St Petersburg on Sunday 2nd July.
The tournament has been organised by the global governing body since 1997, having grown out of an invitational event run by Saudi Arabian operators, and features each of the six continental champions, together with the host nation and the Fifa World Cup holders. Russia, Germany, Portugal, Mexico, Cameroon, Australia, New Zealand and Chile are the participants this time around.
Since 2005, the Confederations Cup has been played in the country that will stage the following year’s World Cup, providing local organisers with an opportunity to stress-test operations and providing the wider soccer community with an insight into the health of the competition to come, and a sense of the challenges that still lie ahead.
Four of the ten host cities for the 2018 World Cup have been pressed into action for the Confederations Cup: 2014 Winter Olympic host Sochi, Kazan, the capital, Moscow, and St Petersburg.
The latter’s $1.4-billion, 68,000-seater Zenit Arena successfully staged the sold-out opening game of the tournament and will also be the venue for the final. Its gestation, however, has been difficult: a renovation project originally slated for completion in 2008 has only recently come to an end and has come in a reported 600 per cent over budget, with the city dismissing the lead contractor last July. Fifa inspections had also raised questions about the shock absorption capacity of the playing surface.
Moreover, concerns have been raised about the construction practices in use at the venue, with as many as 17 workers believed to have died in accidents and human rights groups expressing particular unease at the treatment of North Korean migrant labour as contractors have hurried to complete work. Both Russian president Vladimir Putin and Fifa president Gianni Infantino have expressed their distress at news from the construction site.
Progress elsewhere has been less complicated. Fisht Stadium in Sochi is a conversion of the venue for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games. The Kazan Arena, which boasts the largest outdoor screen in Europe, opened in 2013 and also staged the Fina World Aquatics Championships in 2015. Moscow’s Otkritie Arena, to be known as Spartak Stadium for the duration of the two Fifa tournaments, is the smaller of the capital’s two World Cup stadiums at a capacity of 45,360, and opened back in August 2014. The Luzhniki Stadium, which will host next year’s opening game and final, is currently undergoing its own upgrades.
Fifa created a new ‘regional supporter’ category for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup cycles to replace the ‘national supporter’ slot that had been used for previous tournaments. The expectation was that this could stimulate greater interest in what could prove limiting local markets, with sponsors given assets that can be activated beyond national borders in neighbouring countries.
So far, however the uptake has been sluggish, with only Alfa-Bank signing up in the new role. According to an April report in the Financial Times, part of the reason for this has been a comparative reluctance on the part of state-backed Russian companies to get involved in the competition after the expense of Sochi 2014 – although energy giant Gazprom is a worldwide Fifa partner. Fifa and the local organising committee both maintain that new sponsors will be announced in the coming months.
For international partners, the desirability of sponsoring both Fifa and Russia 2018 has been compromised by the integrity scandals that plagued the former through the first half of this decade and a suite of reputational issues affecting the host nation. Between the Russian government’s role in geopolitical affairs, the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) McLaren Report into alleged state-supported performance-enhancing drug use among Russian athletes, and the mediocre performance of the national team in recent tournaments, a number of prospective sponsors have found reasons to stay away. For Fifa, whose financial success is predicated on a strong showing at each World Cup, the next year will be crucial.
Nevertheless, the Confederations Cup will show some signs of Fifa’s commercial regeneration. Most notably, two Chinese companies – electrical goods manufacturer Hisense and smartphone brand Vivo – will sit in the international ‘Confederations Cup sponsor’ category, joining Fifa worldwide partner Wanda.
For the most part, the Confederations Cup provides long-term Fifa broadcast partners with the opportunity for a dry run ahead of world sport’s biggest TV event a year later. In the US, for example, Fox Sports is set to show the tournament for the first time as it continues its relationship with major international competitions. In the UK, meanwhile, longstanding World Cup broadcaster ITV will take over broadcast duties from the BBC, with which it has shared coverage of the main event for decades.
In the host nation, apparent brinkmanship meant that a TV deal was only confirmed in the week before the opening game. In April, deputy prime minister Vitaly Mutko had accused Fifa of making excessive financial demands for the domestic rights – suggesting the body had asked for US$120 million, up from US$32 million for the 2014 World Cup. In the event, however, a full package was awarded to a state-backed consortium, with free-to-air Channel One and Match TV to show every game live between them on television and RTR to provide radio coverage.
Television will play a part in the tournament in another significant way. Following its use at events including the Fifa Club World Cup and Fifa U20 World Cup, the video assistant referee (VAR) system will be deployed at a senior men’s international competition for the first time. A successful trial is likely to result in the programme’s use at next year’s World Cup, though early feedback would suggest some slight revision of VAR is likely.
For many of the fans attending the Confederations Cup and the World Cup, Russia will be unfamiliar territory. On top of that, events in the early days of last year’s Uefa Euro 2016 and at domestic games in Russia have led organisers to accept that they will need to be vigilant in the face of fan violence, while the reputation of some underground fan groups for racism is another issue that will hang over the build-up.
The local organising committee has released measures to mitigate both of those threats. They will be issuing ticket-holders with FanID accreditation. The scheme not only provides visiting supporters with free-of-charge visa access to Russia, but also allows the local authorities to monitor the details of those who will be attending and seek out potential sources of trouble.
Meanwhile, with the support of a task force created by the local organising committee and headed by former Russia international Alexei Smertin, Fifa has instituted a new three-step anti-racism strategy during games at the Confederations Cup. Referees will be allowed to stop play if they hear or see racist or discriminatory chanting or evidence of abuse during a match, and a public announcement will be made inside the ground. If this continues, they will be entitled to suspend and, as a last resort, abandon the game.