Two months after WCup final, Russia police no longer relaxed

Of the four people who protested on the field during the World Cup soccer final in Moscow, one is now in intensive care and another spent part of the week in a jail cell.

Two months since the tournament ended with France beating Croatia, the tolerant image presented by Russian law enforcement to the outside world appears to be over.

Pyotr Verzilov told The Associated Press last week how he and three other activists from the Russian protest group Pussy Riot used police uniforms to trick their way past security during the final.

"In Russia, definitely, the uniform of any law enforcement official carries a certain magical role," he said in an interview. "Although all the stewards at the stadium clearly knew that no police officers had the right to be inside and there were procedures that had to be followed, that they needed accreditation, no one even had the slightest idea that an officer, a major of the police, needs to have his credentials checked. This just doesn't click in your mind."

The four charged onto the field during the second half of the July 15 game to protest police brutality and authoritarianism in Russia. They evaded security and drew mixed reactions from the players — France's star forward Kylian Mbappe even high-fived one protester, while Croatia defender Dejan Lovren shoved Verzilov.

On Wednesday, five days after speaking to the AP, Verzilov was admitted to the intensive care ward of a Moscow hospital. He regained consciousness Friday, Pussy Riot member Maria Alekhina told the AP. She claimed Verzilov was poisoned — a loaded charge at a time when Britain has accused two Russian men of poisoning a former spy with a nerve agent.

Veronika Nikulshina, the protester who high-fived Mbappe, was detained by police Sunday ahead of a major protest in Moscow and held until Tuesday after being accused of disobeying police orders.

"It's definitely poisoning," Alekhina said of Verzilov's illness. "I think there's nothing other than politics here." Moscow police have not indicated they are investigating the case and did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Russian law enforcement strived to present a tolerant image during the World Cup, and ignored rules which usually ban unauthorized public gatherings and drinking.

Police forces across the country even stopped publishing news about crimes on their websites, instead giving Russians a monthlong diet of lighter fare about visits to children's camps and Internet safety tips.

Two months on, and police have shown less tolerance for dissent and last week beat unauthorized protesters in the street.

During the tournament in June and July, Russians and foreigners alike found the police on their best behavior. Officers took selfies with fans, watched as supporters partied on the street, and turned a blind eye to those drinking alcohol in public.

"People have seen that Russia is a hospitable country that is welcoming to those who come here," President Vladimir Putin said during the tournament.

The government launched its widely unpopular pension reform on June 14, the day the World Cup began. Opposition was muted during the tournament, especially because protests were heavily restricted by a decree from President Vladimir Putin, but a new round of unauthorized protests across Russia on Sunday against the pension changes saw police and National Guard officers beat protesters with truncheons on streets near the Kremlin.

More than 1,000 people were detained nationwide, according to data from the law enforcement monitoring group OVD Info.

During the World Cup, "things started to feel more liberal than they are, but if you look at any of the political processes that were happening, there were no signs of liberalization in any way," said Verzilov, who campaigns for reforms to the prison and law enforcement system. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny organized Sunday's protests, but couldn't attend because he's serving a month in jail after authorities last month charged him over another unauthorized rally in January.

Besides the shift in policing tactics, Russia is grappling with other issues raised by the World Cup.

The stadiums themselves are costly to maintain — estimates range from $2.8 million to $8 million a year for different arenas. Even though more Russians are flocking to club games, it's unlikely to be enough to cover the costs without government subsidies.

Any cash shortfall can cause embarrassment, with power supply to the brand-new Samara Arena briefly turned off last month when electricity bills had reportedly gone unpaid for several months.

While the World Cup was a PR success — and widely seen by fans generally as a good tournament soccer-wise — the need to cover ongoing costs for the sports arenas could be a sore point for Russians who end up working longer before retirement.

Around the world, football fans may have moved on from the World Cup to the new league seasons, but the tournament buzz remains for Peru supporter Giovanni Falcon, who's trying to build a new life in Russia.

Falcon arrived in Yekaterinburg, near the Ural mountains, in June to watch Peru lose 1-0 to France. After the initial sadness of watching his team being eliminated from its first World Cup since 1982, Falcon found he was falling in love with the host nation.

After going home to Peru to sort out documents, he's now trying to learn Russian and find work in Yekaterinburg, though the process of obtaining residency could be arduous.

"I started thinking 'Why not stay in Russia?' I found many reasons to stay here," he said. "Here in Yekaterinburg they have many natural resources. Oil, mining, electricity, so it's compatible with my background."

As for the protesters, Verzilov highlighted one unexpected consequence.

While a video of Verzilov being berated by a senior police officer at the World Cup final went viral in Russia, he became something of a celebrity in the precinct.

"A lot of the police officers liked the action," Verzilov told the AP. "In fact, a lot of police officers at the station asked me for an autograph for their relatives."


Francesca Ebel contributed to this report.


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