The focal point: the Zenit Arena in Vladimir Putin's hometown, St. Petersburg. The $800 million venue is scheduled to host the Confederations Cup opening game and final.
FIFA describes the stadium, located on Krestovsky Island, as built with "a vision of a spaceship that has landed on the shores of the Gulf of Finland." What it is only now admitting is that the stadium was built with the help of North Korean citizens whose working conditions were “often appalling."
That's the term FIFA president Gianni Infantino used in a letter that was written to the presidents of four Nordic federation presidents who protested about what was termed slave labor and that was seen by the Guardian.
But that's only one of several embarrassing problems related to the stadium that only opened this year after long delays.
Marat Oganesyan, a former vice-governor of St. Petersburg, was arrested last fall on charges of being involved in a kickback scheme with the subcontractor who built the stadium scoreboard.
A more immediate issue: the quality of the playing field at Zenit Arena. It was supposed be a state-of-the-art field, but there were bald spots and loose clumps of turf when the stadium opened for a Russian league match involving home team Zenit St. Petersburg over Ural Yekaterinburg.
A third test match was canceled and Zenit was forced to move a league match against FC Krasnodar last week to its former Petrovsky Stadium to save the Zenit Arena grass from wear and tear. Stadium officials and the turf supplier have gone back and forth with excuses about why the grass is in such poor shape.
Infantino met with Putin and Russian deputy prime minister and former sports minister Vitaly Mutko, who is the president of the Russian soccer federation, on Tuesday in Krasnodar to discuss Russia's preparedness for the World Cup.
One thorny issue: A stalemate between Russian broadcasters and FIFA over media rights to the Confederations Cup and World Cup. TASS reported that FIFA wants $120 million for the rights, or almost four times what Russian broadcasters paid four years ago. As it stands now, Russians won't be watching the eight-team Confederations Cup that starts June 17, though Mutko is optimistic about getting a deal done.
"We will settle this issue in the near future, at least regarding the Confederations Cup, but perhaps regarding the World Cup as well," Mutko told TASS.
Infantino's Russian problem has tainted FIFA politics. Critics of Infantino claim Portuguese Miguel Maduro was removed as chairman of the FIFA governance committee as part of a housecleaning of FIFA ethics and governance veterans because he refused the clear Mutko, a former member of the FIFA executive committee dating back to the 2010 hosting decisions on the 2018 and 2022 World Cup, to run for the new FIFA council. That left the next World Cup hosts in the embarrassing situation of not have a representative on FIFA's highest body.
Maduro based his decision on Mutko’s position as deputy prime minister conflicting with FIFA’s ethical rules banning members from serving in governmental roles.
(More generally, sports fans might know Mutko from serving as the face of the Russian government in response to Russia's doping scandal.)