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For Russia, Hosting World Cup Is A Bid To Win Global Respect


The World Cup is underway. And if one of the things you like about the sport are the stories behind the players, then you'll want to stick around for our next conversation. It's about an audacious plan by the nation of Qatar to become a soccer powerhouse by building the finest soccer academy in the world and scouting players literally everywhere. That's coming up.

But first, let's talk about this year's tournament hosted by Russia. Even though Russia hosted the Winter Olympics four years ago, there were some questions about whether Russia was ready to pull off the tournament that's being played in 11 cities. There were some concerns about fan behavior. NPR's Alina Selyukh joins us now from Sochi, one of the host cities. Alina, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hi. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So what's it been like in Sochi this past week?

SELYUKH: You know, Sochi seems to really have been prepared for this. Like you said, they've hosted the Olympics. They are a huge resort city. They host Formula One races. They're really used to having thousands of people streaming in.

And for the World Cup, they have two sorts of areas set up. There is the actual stadium where the games are being played, which is a little bit - a ways from the city. And then in the city near the water, there is a giant screen where you can watch the games remotely and the fan area where there's entertainment and games.

A couple days ago, I watched a group of kids from Brazil, Portugal and Russia all play a game of foosball together. It was very entertaining. They couldn't understand each other. It was very fun.

MARTIN: (Laughter) That sounds like fun. Have you heard or seen of any problems, though?

SELYUKH: The only issue I've heard people talk about has been that chunks of empty seats at the stadiums for games that appear to be sold out. The soccer governing board, FIFA, says it's investigating the most egregious case of this. Something like 6,000 seats were empty in Ekaterinburg, which is the farthest east of all the host cities.

It's unclear why the fans didn't make it to that stadium, but in general, this year's ticket-buying rules were different. They were a little complicated. FIFA started requiring passport details for the holder of each ticket. And you have to get a special photo ID printed.

I think part of it was for safety and part of it was to prevent speculators from reselling tickets, though I have to tell you I met a group of exactly those speculator guys here in Sochi who say the speculation game is alive and well across all World Cup locations as it always is.

MARTIN: And one more question. There was this taxi incident in Moscow. A taxicab apparently plowed into a group of people, including soccer fans. Do we know any more about this incident?

SELYUKH: I think at this point, it's being treated as a traffic incident. The people who were injured in the incident seemed to be fine. A few of them did go to the hospital, but they're getting discharged shortly.

MARTIN: So, Alina, this tournament comes after Russian athletes were penalized at this year's Winter Olympics. They had to compete without their national flag because of allegations that were deemed credible of a doping program that was deemed to have been, you know, widespread and directed at a very high level. Is any of that factoring into World Cup?

SELYUKH: Even the kind of broader political themes are factoring in. At this point, I've spoken to more than a dozen Russian folks, and they all kind of repeat the same line. Personally, I've heard a lot over the years that many regular Russians live with this idea that the world essentially looks down on them as a people, just sort of waits for them to screw up or fail somehow. And the Russians here in Sochi say these grand global events, like the World Cup, give them a chance to show themselves in a good light directly to the people of other countries.

I talked to Artyom Romantsev from the Siberian city of Omsk, who's now a student in Sochi.

ARTYOM ROMANTSEV: (Speaking in Russian).

SELYUKH: He's saying that these games show that Russia is open to the rest of the world, that it's a friendly nation, not like the way various media present them in a bad light because of political events. And interestingly, I heard echoes of the exact same thing from the foreigners, too, who are in Sochi.

STEFAN AREND: The people are unbelievably friendly and happy here. We didn't expect that.

SELYUKH: Why not?

AREND: Because it seems like Russian people are kind of quiet, serious or shy, not that open, not that friendly. But it's totally different.

SELYUKH: That was Stefan Arend from Frankfurt. He and many, many others - it's sort of like this line - they kept repeating the same thing that they read one thing in the media, and they show up and see something different.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Alina Selyukh. She's in Sochi, Russia.

Alina, thanks so much for joining us.

SELYUKH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.
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