Russia's 2018 World Cup bid is moving into overdrive amid fears that England may be sneaking ahead in the final few weeks of campaigning to host the tournament.
The two contenders look to be neck and neck and, last week, the Russian bid committee organised a whistle-stop media tour, showcasing facilities – by plane and high-speed train – in St Petersburg, Moscow and Sochi, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Cranking up the rivalry with England ahead of the 2 December vote in Zurich, the Russians insist that not only do they have financial clout – and hardly a rouble of government debt – but also the stronger legacy.
They are banking, somewhat riskily, on Fifa plumping for an untapped yet bold, vibrant and economically powerful region rather than the safe option, notwithstanding English football's tradition, pedigree and popularity.
Fifa rules forbid bidding nations from commenting on other candidates but Russia's most powerful sports administrator went as far as he could in explaining why England did not deserve 2018. "An event of this scale has never been in eastern Europe," said sports minister Vitaly Mutko. "It's the duty of football to discover new territories. It must give new countries a chance, otherwise global football will be reduced to countries like Britain, France and Germany. That might be the easy option but perhaps it wouldn't be right. Fifa has a stated goal of disseminating its culture across the world. A World Cup in Russia would leave a greater legacy here than elsewhere."
The Russians must do more to convince Fifa of their case. As a result, bid committee officials flew to Cairo last week to lobby Africa's four Fifa executive committee members. England's campaign was represented at the same meeting by David Dein and Andy Anson but the Russians were anxious not to get left behind. The bid leader Alexei Sorokin said: "We all know the importance of African votes."
For all the Russians' commitment and conviction – visa restrictions will be waived and free public transport granted to fans throughout the tournament – nagging doubts remain. During the recent media tour, a police escort was needed to cut through Moscow's choking, bumper-to-bumper logjams, among the worst in Europe. Most stadiums are also being built from scratch. More serious for the Russians are persistent allegations of racism that Mutko and his colleagues tackled by simply going on the defensive.
Mutko said Fifa must not be influenced by what he described as stereotypes dating back to the Soviet Union. "Most of our top clubs have black players," he says. "If racism was a big issue, 53 per cent of players wouldn't be foreign. You have to be blind not to see how Russia is progressing."
In the end, one man could make the difference in Zurich, Vladimir Putin. The Russian prime minister is credited with pushing Sochi over the line to land the Winter Games. "He has impact the moment he walks into a room," said Sorokin. "He's that kind of figure. It's always beneficial when a government leader can say 'I can guarantee'. I think he will have a big impact."Reuse content