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Will Russia be the most controversial Football World Cup yet?

Newshub logoNewshub 14/06/2018 Michael O'Keeffe
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Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

The first big controversy of the World Cup has already happened, with Spain sacking coach Julen Lopetegui just a day out from the tournament opener.

It seems a crazy move, just as Spain is about to embark on an assault on world supremacy, but such is the World Cup.

It may be the first, but most certainly not the last controversy in Russia. World Cups are a provocative beast and there are plenty of talking points to ponder before things kick off in Moscow on Friday (NZ time)

Can Russia host a World Cup that's racism free?

Right from the very moment the European country was awarded the rights to host football's greatest event, its dark history of hooliganism and discrimination was brought to light.

When Brazilian striker Hulk captained Russian side Zenit St Petersburg from 2012-16, he said he heard racist chants "almost every match".

It's no coincidence FIFA introduced a new three-step procedure at the 2017 Confederations Cup to help stop discrimination, as part of its 'Say No To Racism!' programme. It's worried.

That's also why that process is in effect for this World Cup.

If racism is present, the steps are:

1.      The referee can ask for a public service announcement over the loud speaker

2.      The referee can then suspend the match temporarily

3.      The referee can abandon a match completely

It’s FIFA's way of showing it has a 'zero-tolerance' approach to racism at this World Cup, but examples as recent as this year suggest it still exists.

The Russian Football Union was fined NZ$45,000 for racist chants by fans at a friendly against France in March.

Will the VAR work?

For the first time at FIFA's supreme tournament, the much-maligned – but necessary – VAR will be used.

The Virtual Assistant Referee will be available in every match, helping match officials make the right call regarding goals, penalties, straight red cards and mistaken identity.

The technology has had plenty of teething issues since being introduced. The most recent - the A-league final,  where Kosta Barbarouses' decisive goal could not be overturned (for offside) due to a failure in the technology.

New Zealand's only referee at the World Cup, Matt Conger, was confident the VAR's introduction will only be positive

"Referees are only human and there will be times where we make a mistake, so having VAR there will certainly allow that those mistakes to be corrected."

It could mean more goals scored, even if they are overturned. World Cup assistant referees have been told to keep their flags down for tight offside calls to enable VAR to make the correct decision.

a screenshot of a video game © Provided by MediaWorks NZ Limited

This could also mean more delays/stoppages in play to check these decisions.

Does that mean more stoppage-time equalisers/winners? We'll see.

At the end of the day, the introduction of the VAR to these events is inevitable. Ultimately, we want the right decision made.

It could be a hard pill to swallow and a huge talking point, if it decides a pivotal moment in a match though.

Will the ball behave like a deflating balloon?

It seems like ever since the Jubalani, we're always talking about the ball. The 2018 edition is no different.

The Adidas Telstar 18 has copped some criticism from some of the leading goalkeepers in the world.

Spain's David de Gea said it was "really strange" and "it could have been made a lot better".

From my own experience, these balls are already difficult to grasp. Every game you play with new balls and every ball has a sheath on it that - when wet - it becomes almost impossible to grip.

a person holding a football ball © Provided by MediaWorks NZ Limited

It just so happens to be that they water the pitch before every match as well, so the ball is always wet.

Spain's Pepe Reina backed that point up.

"It’s covered in a plastic film that makes it difficult to hold on to. Goalkeepers are going to have a lot of problems with this ball."

But if you're after goals, this ball will be a glaring success.

"I bet you as much as you like we'll see at least 35 goals from long range, because it's impossible to work out," added Reina.

Germany's Marc-Andre ter Stegen was more philosophical.

"I think we're just going to have to get used to working with it – and try to get to grips with it as quickly as possible before the World Cup starts. We’ve got no other choice."

The World Cup is bound to produce plenty of talking points. Let's hope none of the above are one of them.

Michael O'Keeffe is a Newshub reporter and former NZ international goalkeeper.

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