In Russia, football fever is slowly rising.
The Confederations Cup kicks off this weekend in St Petersburg. For fans, the fortnight of international football is a taster for the 2018 World Cup.
But for Russia, plagued by image problems, the championship is also chance to prove that it is a safe host for travelling players and their supporters.
That is not how it looked last summer.
Russian hooligans were among those rampaging through the streets of France at the European Championship. The internet was flooded with phone footage of gangs, chasing and dishing out brutal beatings to rival fans.
There have been fears ever since that Russian hooligans will try to repeat those scenes on home turf.
Officials here are adamant that will not happen.
“We are working with fans, analysing potential threats,” senior interior ministry official Anton Gusev explained at a press conference to present security plans both for this summer and the 2018 World Cup.
He revealed that 191 Russians were currently blacklisted and banned from matches. That is almost double the number before the trouble in Marseille.
“Those convicted of serious violations including racism, setting off flares or fights are under our constant control,” the security chief stressed, adding that his team were also working closely with police abroad.
At the heart of Russia’s security arrangements is a new “fan passport” system.
On the ground floor of a Moscow city office block, staff are still busy creating the laminated photo IDs required by all ticket holders for the Confederations Cup.
It is one of multiple distribution centres issuing the passports to all applicants who pass security screening. For travelling fans, the ID also replaces a visa.
“After checks like this, I think it will be very safe,” Andrei told the BBC, plastic ID already in hand.
He said he had won two match tickets at work and was not at all worried about security.
“Russia is not France. Everything will be great!” Andrei added.
“If there are idiot hooligans here, then they exist all over the world. But I think people will see this as a party, not as an excuse to come and fight,” another fan called Ramil agreed.
With matches in four host cities, instead of the 11 being made ready for 2018, the Confederations Cup is a chance to test-drive the new IDs on a smaller scale.
But hooligans are not the only security concern.
It is just over two months since a suicide bomber attacked the metro in St Petersburg, the venue for the opening match on Saturday. There have been further terror attacks in Europe since then.
‘No terror threat’
President Vladimir Putin has issued a decree tightening security for several weeks in the four host cities. Decree 202 sets restrictions on access and activities in those cities. Controversially, that includes extra curbs on political demonstrations.
“Currently, we have the situation totally under control, we don’t see any terror threat,” a deputy head of the FSB intelligence service told the BBC.
“We are increasing our work on all fronts: both inside the country and by co-operating with all foreign partners who are ready to help,” said Alexei Lavrishchev.
In the kind of dig at the West that is common these days he added that Russia’s borders were closed to members of international terror groups, “unlike European countries with a more liberal migration regime”.
The man blamed for the St Petersburg bombing was a Russian citizen, though.
Hosting the World Cup, and its precursor this month, is a matter of great pride for Russia. But the event has thrust the country under an international spotlight that it is not always happy about.
A common reaction to criticism, including over hooliganism, has been to claim that Russia is the victim of a smear campaign. Russia’s enemies, the argument goes, are trying to sabotage the World Cup.
But behind the bluster, officials do seem to have taken note.
‘Racism exists everywhere’
Not so long ago, Alexei Smertin claimed there was no such thing as racism in Russian football.
The former Chelsea midfielder and national team captain has since been made a World Cup ambassador, given the task of rooting out racism amongst other things.
“It’s an issue that exists everywhere,” Mr Smertin told the BBC, while Russia’s national squad trained behind him for their opening game. “But we will show our warm reception for all, despite their continent or nationality.”
Anti-racism campaigners reported a significant rise in abusive chanting in 2014-15, the last season they had figures for. But Alexei Smertin said Russia’s slogan was “respect”.
He also insisted his country was taking the problem of hooliganism seriously.
“I would say there is this tiny minority of people who are… a bit aggressive,” the ex-Chelsea player conceded. “But 99% of people who love football are quite polite.”
That is the message that Russia is working hard to project. As fans arrive for this weekend’s first matches, it will have to starting proving itself.
Who’s taking part in the Confederations Cup?
- Eight teams are competing for the curtain-raiser to Russia 2018
- Euro 2016 winners Portugal, hosts Russia and 2014 World Cup winners Germany
- 2017 Africa Cup of Nations champions Cameroon
- 2015 Copa America winners Chile and Concacaf Gold Cup winners Mexico
- Asian Cup winners Australia and Oceania champions New Zealand
Where: Sochi, Kazan, St Petersburg and Moscow
When: 17 June to 2 July
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