SOCHI, Russian Federation, Jun 16 – The Confederations Cup kicks off on Saturday when Russia play New Zealand in St Petersburg, with the hosts promising there will be no repeat of the violence which marred Euro 2016.
A year before Russia holds the World Cup, the behaviour of fans and concerns over racism are topics the host nation hopes will not be a factor at the eight-team Confederations Cup.
The June 17-July 2 tournament is effectively a scaled-down warm-up for the 2018 World Cup finals.
“Russia is a completely safe country and I am sure that our football fans will behave,” Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko told TASS news agency.
“All of us, as well as those visiting, must respect the culture and traditions of Russia. Our country is safe and open,” added Mutko, who is also the president of the Russian Football Union.
By far the biggest name at the tournament will be global superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, who will captain Euro 2016 winners Portugal.
World champions Germany, Ronaldo’s Portugal and south American champions Chile are amongst the favourites to win the final in St Petersburg on July 2.
Hosts Russia are in Group A with Portugal, Mexico, the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup winners, and New Zealand, the 2016 Oceania champions.
Germany face Copa America title-holders Chile, 2015 Asian Cup champions Australia, and this year’s Africa Cup of Nations winners Cameroon in Group B.
Germany head coach Joachim Loew has questioned the value of hosting a Confederations Cup between Euro 2016 and next year’s World Cup.
“I probably wouldn’t be sad if it didn’t take place in 2021,” Loew said when naming an inexperienced squad, making no apology for resting his stars.
The 57-year-old has made it clear next year’s World Cup is the priority.
– Tight security, fears of racism –
Only three of the squad, which has a combined total of 104 international appearances, formed part of the 2014 World Cup-winning group and Loew has named seven uncapped players.
After the Manchester bomb attack last month, security is set to be tight at all four venues in Moscow, Sochi, St Petersburg and Kazan.
Fans attending the 2017 Confed Cup have to register their details to receive an ID badge they must wear to be allowed into the stadiums.
The Russians are aiming to avoid a recurrence of the violence at Euro 2016 when Russian and English fans clashed in Marseille before and during their teams’ group stage match. Thirty-five people were injured, the majority England fans, as a result of the trouble.
There are also fears over racist behaviour in the stands, a concern highlighted during a carnival in Sochi last month.
A handful of performers blackened their faces and carried bananas to represent Cameroon during a parade to honour the eight teams taking part in the upcoming tournament.
The city of Sochi released a statement insisting the parade was a “celebration of the different continents and a testimony of Russia’s open attitude”.
“By no means did the carnival parade intend to insult anyone,” it added.
Russia’s track record of football-related racism has raised questions as to whether fans and players of various backgrounds will be welcome at both the Confederations Cup and the 2018 World Cup.
Over the past five years, there have been numerous incidents of racism during matches in Russia.
During a 2015 interview, Brazilian star Hulk, who played for Zenit St Petersburg from 2012-2016, said he encountered racism in “almost every game” he played.
“If (racism) happens in the World Cup, it will be really gross and really ugly,” he added.