Russia relieved after passing first World Cup test

ST PETERSBURG, Russia: Russia breathed a sigh of relief on Saturday after its soccer team won the opening match of the Confederations Cup and the country demonstrated that one of its most problematic World Cup pitches was fit for international matches.
Russia convincingly beat New Zealand 2-0 at the St Petersburg stadium in front of 50,251 people, including President Vladimir Putin and Fifa President Gianni Infantino, who addressed the crowd before kick-off.
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 the one hand an additional positive, but it is also an additional responsibility,” Russia manager Stanislav Cherchesov, whose team face Portugal on Wednesday, told reporters.
“We coped with the task before us,” Cherchesov said.
Although Russia were under pressure to perform well on home soil after slipping to a record low 63rd in Fifa’s world rankings this month, the country faced even more scrutiny over issues off the pitch in the run-up to the two-week tournament.
The 68,000-seat St Petersburg stadium will be a flagship venue at the 2018 World Cup and the home of Russian soccer powerhouse Zenit, but its decade-long construction marred by corruption allegations and delays has so far caused more disappointment than satisfaction.
A new pitch had to be hastily laid before Saturday’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 on Saturday the pitch survived without noticeable damage.
“I don’t know how it was to play on, but 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 soccer 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, said 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.
— Reuters