MOSCOW — After years of controversy, Russian officials think their World Cup has weathered the storm.
Stadiums are either finished or nearing completion, and the Confederations Cup is going smoothly.
"The project is very big and there are some delays or operational questions, minor questions, but nothing critical," Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko, who oversees World Cup preparations, said Saturday.
But with a year to go, some serious concerns remain around Russia’s 643.5-billion-ruble ($10.8 billion) World Cup dream.
Workers’ deaths and alleged rights abuses taint the new stadiums. Teams will live in far-flung, hard-to-secure locations. Many of the stadiums risk becoming white elephants.
Here is a look at some of the key issues:
Russia is desperate to avoid what Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko calls "the Brazilian scenario" — the construction delays and organizational disarray which marred the start of the last World Cup in 2014.
That looks assured, with most of the 12 stadiums either complete or close to completion, though some have gone over budget.
But did Russia cut corners on workers’ rights to get them ready? A report this month by Human Rights Watch accused Russia of numerous abuses on pay and conditions, and notes at least 17 deaths during construction.
Evidence that North Korean workers — who are employed around the world in conditions often likened to slavery — worked on the St. Petersburg stadium has brought concern from FIFA.
Many of Russia’s 12 stadiums look certain to be rarely — if ever — full again after the World Cup.
Just five of the 11 host cities have top-flight football clubs. The Russian Premier League attracts average crowds of 11,500 — among the lowest for major European leagues — and it seems new stadiums may be a temporary attraction that don’t solve fan apathy in the long-term.
Premier League side Rubin Kazan got an initial attendance bump after moving into a 45,000-seat World Cup ground in 2014, but crowds have dropped almost 30 per cent over the last two seasons to 9,750. One home game against FC Krasnodar in April attracted barely 3,000 fans.
Meanwhile, Mordovia Saransk averaged 2,400 fans at games this season as it was relegated to the third tier, but will inherit a 45,000-seat World Cup ground next year. Sochi won’t have a professional club at all in 2017-18.
In Kaliningrad and Yekaterinburg, legacy concerns led Russian organizers to slash the capacity of World Cup stadiums from the original 45,000 to 25,000, with 10,000 more temporary seats.
Only the St. Petersburg stadium — home to games at the 2020 European Championship — and Moscow’s two grounds seem likely to be regularly in demand.
It’s not just about the host cities. The 32 teams taking part will be scattered across the country in newly built training bases as the Russian government tries to give other regions a taste of World Cup legacy — and lavish state spending.
Some locations in less glamorous areas of Russia are a hard sell for foreign teams, even if the accommodation is luxurious.
There’s Dzherzhinsk, an industrial city plagued by pollution from chemical plants, or Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, which was ravaged by war in the 1990s and early 2000s. Any team there will live with heavily armed guards. Many bases are in remote locations requiring air travel to even the nearest host city.
Small wonder that teams are expected to prioritize locations near the resort city of Sochi. Moscow’s heavy traffic is also a concern.
Still, team training bases may prove more useful for long-term legacy than the stadiums, since many include renovations of municipal football grounds.
Foreign fans at the Confederations Cup have largely seemed happy with Russian hospitality.
Tournament volunteers, police and paramedics have all had English classes to help foreigners in need, and free travel between host cities is on offer for ticket-holders.
Still, the real test is yet to come. The World Cup will bring many more foreign fans, posing a challenge for provincial transport links unused to such crowds.
Russia fans have little to be excited about, too, after their team exited the Confederations Cup in the group stage.
Russian authorities take the threat of terrorism at the World Cup seriously, especially after a bombing on the St. Petersburg subway in April.
At the Confederations Cup, thousands of police have operated tight airport-style security around stadiums, with more on key transport links.
The World Cup is even tougher to secure, with stadiums and team bases scattered across Russia. In the last five years, the host city of Volgograd has been hit by bombings, while Pyatigorsk, Grozny and Astrakhan, home to training bases, have seen attacks on security forces.
There are also fears about football hooliganism after Russians fans fought English supporters in France at last year’s European Championship. The Russian hooligans had martial arts training and left several England fans badly hurt, including one in a coma.
Russian authorities have blacklisted 191 fans with criminal records, and hours before the Confederations Cup began, dozens more, including members of radical groups, were refused permission to attend the tournament.
Soccer’s world governing body also has work to do.
FIFA has pioneered video reviews of key moments like penalty calls during the Confederations Cup, but faced criticism that players and fans inside stadiums aren’t kept in the loop.
During Chile’s game against Cameroon last week, players milled about in confusion during one key review, and some headed toward the changing rooms, apparently thinking the referee had signalled for half-time.
FIFA also needs to hammer out a TV broadcast deal in Russia. Mutko has accused FIFA of charging so much that Russian networks would make a loss, and of trying to force the government to chip in.
A deal for the Confederations Cup was only reached six days before the tournament kicked off, avoiding the embarrassment of the host nation’s fans not being able to watch their team play.