ST PETERSBURG, Russia, June 17 (Reuters) - 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 kickoff.
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 kickoff 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, told Reuters on Saturday that he had been barred from attending his country’s match against New Zealand just a few hours before kickoff.
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.
Russian authorities insist that the Confederations Cup’s ticketing system, which requires ticket holders to apply for a personalised fan-ID, ensures that all fans are screened and troublemakers are kept away.
“The chances of losing the right to attend Confederations Cup and World Cup matches are significantly increased for people who are known to have committed serious violations,” the organising committee said in comments e-mailed to Reuters.
FIFA has for the first time implemented a three-step procedure at the Confederations Cup that allows referees to stop matches in the event of racist or discriminatory incidents.
At Saturday’s game there were two pre-game stadium announcements warning fans against discriminatory behaviour.
FIFA general secretary Fatma Samoura said on Friday that the estimated attendance for the tournament would be 65 percent, and that Russia’s match against European champions Portugal had been sold out for weeks.
But empty seats remain a concern, with Russia’s Sport Express reporting that some tickets were being handed out to state workers for free in a bid to fill the stands at an upcoming Confederations Cup match in Kazan.
The tournament’s organising committee told Reuters it had launched a programme allowing “underprivileged Russian fans” to attend matches for free and that local authorities were in charge of distributing those tickets.
Writing by Moscow newsroom, editing by Ed Osmond