Football beyond politics; shame that some politicians don’t get that - Russia 2018 WC Chief

As the 2018 World Cup kickoff is getting closer, Russian cities are going through last-minute adjustments and checkups, making sure everything is up to the level of the biggest sporting event in the world. Is everything checked on the Russian World Cup bucket list? And what will be new and unique about the tournament this year? We asked Alexey Sorokin, CEO of the Local Organising Committee for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Alexey Sorokin, it’s really great to have you on our programme today. Welcome.

Alexey Sorokin: Thank you.

SS: So, you took part in preparations for the Sochi Olympics. Obviously, the World Cup is in terms of infrastructure, in terms of scale a much bigger thing: 11 cities, 12 stadiums. Does that make the World Cup more complex from an organisational point of view?

AS: We traditionally do not compare the two events. They are very different. One is a multi-sport event in one city. We have a single-sport event which is scattered throughout the European part of Russia. But it is complex, it is indeed multifaceted. It involves a lot of fans who come to Russia, who want to see great football inside Russia, Russian citizens. In general almost 3 million tickets are distributed to the World Cup, so it is a grand event. 

SS: But you seem pretty calm and confident. During one of the operational visits to Russia FIFA officials were saying that the Russian facilities were progressing on track, but “the devil is in details”. What details do they mean? I mean, what kind of details do the general public miss?

AS: Well, it’s hard for me to say which details they meant. World Cup is about details. World Cup has very specific requirements for all the venues, for our stadiums. Regular stadiums which are used for national league games cannot instantly host the World Cup. They need additional preparations, they need adaptation. And that’s what we’re doing right now. All the stadiums are ready. And then we’ll finish the adaptation work for the World Cup itself - the decoration and the fine-tuning of the stadiums. And we’ll be completely ready for the World Cup.     

SS: So, this is happening. Do you have, like, last minute catastrophes that you had to deal with? I mean, we are obviously not going to see this in the news - like, you can look back and laugh right now, behind-the-scenes stuff?

AS: ‘Catastrophe’ will be a very strong word. But usually something happens. We think that we undertook as much precautions as we could, we hope that everything will go according to the plan, but usually something happens, yes. We’ve seen big football tournaments where pitches were replaced between the matches. We’ve seen in the past matches that were delayed or even removed, postponed. But we hope nothing like that happens at Russian World Cup.    

SS: During the test runs the new stadiums on show for the World Cup have seen enormous queues and traffic going in and out. How are you going to make sure fans aren't going to be watching the game in the queue instead of their seats?

AS: Well, in every city we have a detailed and very thought-through transport plan. This plan will be tested during three matches that will take place at every city before the World Cup. These test matches are good indication for us to see whether our plans work, whether the venue works in general for big crowds of people. If something doesn’t work we change it. But usually we come fully prepared. You saw how the Luzhniki [stadium] improved over two matches. Same thing will happen to every stadium.   

SS: The White House has issued a travel warning for fans going to the World Cup.

AS: Which White House?

SS: The American White House in Washington. But FIFA head and the Russian officials are saying that the security situation is under control. So tell me, do the Americans know something we do not? Who should I believe?

AS: Security situation is indeed under control. We have a very robust security concept. Every law enforcement agency is part of its implementation. We have tested our security abilities during the Confederations Cup. Everything worked, so we have no reason to believe why it shouldn’t work during the World Cup. There were no security incidents at multiple international events, so we have a good track record of being able to organise security and safety for all our guests.

SS: If we put this diplomatic spat aside and talk terrorism seriously, ISIS has threatened attacks during the tournament. What extra anti-terrorist measures are in place?

AS: All the proper anti-terrorist measures will be in place. For sure, I cannot tell you the specifics, but every guest should be confident that all the measures are being taken. There’s a huge effort behind organising security for everyone.

SS: I know that tourist police units will be established in host cities. Some units are already patrolling Moscow. How different are they from regular police? What are they going to be doing?

AS: That’s a new effort. We’re also looking at it like anybody else. Hopefully it will be more about assisting rather than policing and taking measures. It’s about making sure that everybody is comfortable, that there are no issues, that everybody has responses to their questions. My idea would be that it’s more about assisting and making people comfortable.   

SS: And what about the visa situation? I mean, most of the fans and most of the countries that are going to be taking part in the World Cup will need visas to come to Russia. If you go to the embassy and say “I’m going to the World Cup”, is it going to be easier to get a visa?

AS: The visa situation is very simple. We fulfilled our promise to the world football community: this World Cup is visa-free. People should just get a Fan ID and with that Fan ID they can travel visa-free. They can also present a substitution of the Fan ID, a certificate, even an electronic one, and they will be let into the country without a visa. Fan IDs are sent by mail, it’s very simple to apply for it. It’s a free service for every ticket holder and, we think, it’s going to be very convenient for everyone. 

SS: You’re operating in a very uneasy political situation coincidentally, it’s just happened so.

AS: Yes.

SS: UK Foreign Secretary Johnson compared World Cup in Russia to the Nazi Olympics in 1936. Does that frustrate your work?

AS: What frustrates us is that some officials do not fully understand or do not fully accept the principle of football being beyond politics. That’s a fundamental principle of the world football. We regret that some people may have opinions but it’s their own opinions, it doesn’t influence opinions of many other football fans who are buying tickets every day in large volumes. We have very good ticket sales. People vote for the World Cup in Russia with their money. There’s even a ticket deficit for certain games. And we’re certain that the stadiums will be full.  

SS: I know about the ticket deficit, we are going to get to that. But tell me, are the British fans still buying the tickets?

AS: Yes.

SS: Large numbers?

AS: Decent numbers, yes. They are among the leaders in Europe.

SS: That’s amazing. But there’s also a lot of talk about the royal family not coming after the Skripal incident. And obviously the British officials are not coming and also some European politicians say they won’t come. Does that take away from the status of the tournament?

AS: No, it doesn’t. For us every fan is equally valuable despite his professional occupation. It’s a personal decision whether you should come to watch and support your team or not. We regret that some people will miss out this opportunity. But for us it’s a personal decision. It has no reflection on the World Cup itself.  

SS: One year ago, I remember, the Russian Football Union came up with this idea of “Gentlefan” when Russian fans were welcoming the Brits in Rostov with warm blankets. Anything like that this time around?

AS: We’re organising the World Cup in summer, so no warm blankets and no “ushanka” hats…

SS: Ok, maybe they can meet them with ice cream...

AS: No, there’s a traditional welcome kit by FIFA. There are certain initiatives that we take vis-a-vis our fans. But this was a club decision, club initiative. Of course, World Cup is a bigger event with larger amounts of people, so blankets will not be used.

SS: Russia’s summer is getting chilly in the evening…

AS: Not in Rostov.

SS: During a friendly match with France in St. Petersburg in late March, I remember, a few French players claimed that they were subject to racist abuse. I know that you can’t really prevent incidents like this ‘cause there’s no cure from people’s stupidity, but is there anything that you can do to minimize incidents like that?

AS: Of course, we’ve been doing that together with the Russian Football Union. We think, in general a lot has been done and the number of such incidents…

SS: What exactly?

AS: Usually it’s twofold. It’s explaining to people why it shouldn’t be done and what’s wrong with that. In general both, the Russian Football Union and the Organising Committee, have a very firm stance against racist behaviour. And then the second part of it is inevitability of punishment: people should understand that a certain liability is inevitable, that they will be banned from the stadium or criminally prosecuted. But the biggest part of it is explaining why it’s wrong, that they are harming their own country and their own team, that in general it’s no way to behave at the stadium. But the number of incidents reduced significantly over the last two years. That means the efforts are fruitful. 

SS: The Video Assistant Referee (VAR, as it’s known)  - it will be the first time at this World Cup that it’s used. There's plenty of talk about its effectiveness and the stoppages it causes to the game - how are you going to make sure it goes down as a success? There's already added pressure on referees, and you don’t want fans to remember this World Cup as a VAR sham…

AS: That’s exactly what the system is doing - it’s taking the pressure off referees and excludes a possibility of a mistake. Mistakes take place, it’s quite clear, so the Video Assistant Referee takes away this possibility. When you’re watched by 40 thousand at the stadium and by a billion outside the stadium it’s quite a pressure for a referee. We are all humans and the idea is to take out the human factor and to bring more justice to the game. So we believe, this initiative has a big future. It was well-tested during the Confederations Cup and there are multiple applications for the use of this system by many leagues throughout the world.

SS: But are you not nervous like you will be the first one really using it on this scale?

AS: No, the system works fine. There has been a lot of tests, technically it’s perfect. What FIFA will fine-tune is its presentation on the screen for people, work out some details, but in general it works perfectly well.

SS: Why is the UEFA saying that it’s not yet clear how the system should be efficiently utilised? Are they just waiting to see the World Cup in Russia as a test drive for the VAR?

AS: Well, it’s possible, but there are many European leagues who are pioneering in implementing this system. The German league is among them. But I cannot comment on behalf of the UEFA. We’ll see at the World Cup.

SS: So, tickets - you’ve brought them up - it’s really hard to get them, at this point it’s “first come first serve” phase of ticket purchasing. How do I know that most of the tickets weren’t sold and bought up by scalpers and they are not going to be resold 500 times the price?

AS: There’s no World Cup that can guarantee that there is no speculation. But I think, we’ve made appropriate efforts to avoid this as much as possible. First of all, tickets are expensive enough. We have Fan ID system which is another obstacle in their way. The Russian Federation has made liability more stringent for those who decide to illicitly profit from ticket sales. But in general we cannot 100% exclude the possibility of illegal ticket sales. It happens at every World Cup. We hope that it will be kept in check during this one, based on these measures.

SS: Can you help us get tickets?

AS: Funny you should say that. Right now it’s fifa.com and ticket centres who can help you, not the Organising Committee. The Organising Committee doesn’t do tickets.

SS: Alright, jokes put aside - a rumour has it that accommodation prices are skyrocketing during the World Cup and a city like Saransk that probably no one has ever heard of, may set a tourist back a thousand dollars a night, is it true?

AS: Well, everything is possible. World Cup is a big universe. But in general there was a special decree by the government adopted a long time ago which controls the hotel prices. There are appropriate authorities which control the implementation of this decree. There could be sporadic attempts of certain hotels to suddenly increase the prices, but in general they are corrected by appropriate authorities. And if there’s a private accomodation that suddenly decides to make additional profit the market will off-balance them. We believe that prices will reach their equilibrium closer to the event.

SS: So, for unfortunate fans, like me, who were unable to get tickets ‘cause you won’t help me…

AS: You don’t look like an unfortunate fan.

SS: And I’m not good in buying tickets on internet, will I still be able to feel the whole atmosphere? Are you going to have, like, big screens in parks, pubs, restaurants etc. where people can watch if they are not on the stadium?

AS: Well, for the unfortunate fans, as you call them, there are FIFA Fan Fests, which will be located in the central squares at every city. There will big screens, entertainment programmes, food and drinks, and people can watch games of the World Cup there, enjoy the atmosphere, have a lot of fun.

SS: Now I know, what I’m expecting from this World Cup. Free trains rides between host cities - tell me, how is this going to work?

AS: That’s a very complicated system organised by our Ministry of Transport. It’s more than 700 free trains which will operate between the Russian cities, which will carry ticket holders free of charge. Of course, this suggests preliminary booking. People cannot just expect to come to the railway station and board the nearest train, they should reserve a seat. But this reservation is going on. This is another example of our initiative which was well-tested during the Confederations Cup and received a lot of good comments. 

SS: What about the planes? ‘Cause most air travel in Russia…

AS: Planes will not be free.

SS: That I understand. But most air travel in Russia has to go with a layover in Moscow. Is this the way it’s going to be this time around too, like, if you want to connect to the host cities, you need to do a layover in Moscow?

AS: We are in discussions with the Russian aviation authorities and with the air companies. In general there’s an intention to put additional planes where there’s a demand. So right now we are examining this demand, analysing it. Where the demand is clear they can put additional planes, additional air routes which connect cities not through Moscow but directly.

SS: Alright, Alexey Sorokin, thanks a lot for this interview, for this insight, for clearing things up. Good luck with everything. I guess, I’ll be watching from the big screen and cheering to all of you. Thank you.

AS: Thank you.