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With a year to go, Russia’s World Cup faces challenges

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MOSCOW (AP) 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:

STADIUMS

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.

LEGACY

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 percent 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.

TEAM BASES

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.

FAN EXPERIENCE

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.

SECURITY

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.

FIFA READINESS

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 signaled 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.

AP Sports Writer Tales Azzoni in Kazan, Russia, contributed to this report.

Follow Live: Chelsea, Swans, Cherries in FA Cup replays

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Chelsea, Swansea City, and Bournemouth look to avoid upsets in replays of their third round FA Cup matches.

[ LIVE: Follow all the FA Cup scores here ]

All three matches kick off at 2:45 p.m. ET

The Blues tangle with former Premier League peers Norwich City, this time at Stamford Bridge, in a bid to host a fourth round match with Newcastle United.

Antonio Conte‘s not messing around (too much) with the XI.

Swansea City and Wolves, meanwhile, are arguably battling for a bid in the fourth round, as a trip to Notts County is on the docket for the winner of Wednesday’s replay at the Liberty Stadium.

Bournemouth is at Wigan Athletic for a replay with the third-tier Latics, with the victor hosting West Ham United on Jan. 27.

Benevento captain Lucioni banned one year for doping

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ROME (AP) Benevento captain Fabio Lucioni has been banned one year for doping.

[ MORE: Plenty to prove for Big Sam ]

Italy’s national anti-doping organization made the decision Tuesday after the steroid clostebol was found in a sample taken after Benevento’s 1-0 loss to Torino in September.

Benevento team physician Walter Giorgione was banned for four years for administering the steroid to Lucioni in a spray.

Both Lucioni and Giorgione plan to appeal.

The 30-year-old Lucioni joined Benevento in 2014 and the defender helped the team move from the third division up into Serie A this season for the first time.

Benevento is last in Serie A with only two wins in 20 matches.

The ban is back-dated to October, meaning Lucioni can return early next season.

Everton completes move for Walcott: “I’m dead excited” (video)

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Everton continues to supply its managers with top-end talent, adding Theo Walcott to its expensive season of boys which includes Gylfi Sigurdsson, Wayne Rooney, Cenk Tosun, Jordan Pickford, and Michael Keane.

[ MORE: Plenty to prove for Big Sam ]

The deal is reported to be near $28 million for Walcott, who’s made only a half-dozen Premier League appearances this season but did nab three goals in five Europa League matches.

Walcott, 28, scored 108 goals in 397 appearances for the Gunners. His 19-goal campaign last season was his second-best — he scored 21 in 2012-13 — but Walcott dipped down Arsene Wenger‘s depth charge and is leaving to pursue regular football.

And his comments will be lapped up by the #WengerOut brigade at his now former club:

“The Club has won trophies but I want them to win trophies now. The manager is very hungry and it’s just what I need. I’ve had a couple of chats with him and straightaway I felt that hunger and that desire that he wanted from me. I need that and I wanted that

The move is another exciting one for Everton, which has underachieved under Ronald Koeman and now Sam Allardyce. And it’s another sale from Arsenal which gives pause: Are the underperforming Gunners going to regret the move?

In the 2005-06 season, Walcott made his Southampton debut in the Football League Championship at the age of 16, and moved to Arsenal the next season.

Walcott has eight goals in 47 caps for England, and won two FA Cups at Arsenal.

[ MORE: Montreal nabs Algerian DP ]

Here is a useful quote from Sam Allardyce:“His physical output is excellent, he would be one of our top players in that area as well, which will hopefully bring us a lot more excitement and more ability to get forward quicker and create.

And here is an utterly useless one: ““If you analyse his goal record, then we are looking at a player who contributes goals on a regular basis.”

You don’t say. To paraphrase: If you look at all his goals, he regularly scores goals. Here’s more from the player on his move.

Montreal to nab Algerian DP Taider from Bologna

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The loss of Swiss power Blerim Dzemaili is a big one for the Montreal Impact, but another World Cup player may be taking his place in Quebec.

[ MLS: Club-by-club SuperDraft needs ]

Tutto Bologna reports that Algerian playmaker Saphir Taider, 25, is set to sign with the Impact on a contract through 2020.

On loan to Montreal last season, Dzemaili went back to Bologna. Taider is coming back the other way and will reportedly be a Designated Player.

Taider isn’t as consistent a player as Dzemaili, but presents a skill set that should be a massive problem for MLS midfields.

He has 42 caps with five goals for Algeria, and was once property of Juventus. He spent parts of four seasons at Inter Milan, with loan stints back to Bologna, at Sassuolo, and a unremarkable time at Southampton.