WITH THE WORLD Cup kicking off in a week, political tensions between Russia and the West seem to be at their worst in decades. However, ordinary Russians are hopeful that if all goes well the tournament could boost the country’s image as well as push the national team’s game to a higher level.
Walking through Moscow’s city centre, even one who may have not been aware that Russia is hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2018 will find that out one way or another. Authorities seem to be using every single opportunity to draw attention to the World Cup, which is to kick off on June 14th in the capital’s Luzhniki Stadium. For instance, a daily light show dedicated to Russia hosting the tournament has been launched on the facade of the Manege exhibition centre, located metres from Red Square. Most key tourist locations have some form of FIFA-related decoration ranging from the surrealistic countdown clock and colourful flags hoisted on street lamps across the city centre to giant football-themed graffiti on buildings.
“Moscow is preparing for the opening. It’s pleasant to see how the city is changing right in front of your eyes,” says local resident Zinaida, 58, “Today I see flags and [other World Cup] attributes everywhere.”
There seems to be a sense of anticipation among Moscow residents. “I’m wholeheartedly waiting to hear the first whistle,” says Mikhail, 22, who works at Galaxy studio in central Gorky Park. Popular with the young and overcrowded during warm summer days, the park has been chosen to temporarily showcase the gold trophy awarded to the winners after it toured Russia, visiting 24 cities.
Residents are expecting hundreds of thousands of tourists to flock to the city. Amid the tense political atmosphere and talk of a new Cold War, some are hoping that when foreigners visit the country, they will discover that Russia is an open and welcoming nation. “Russia will be seen in a different light, without those Soviet stereotypes,” says Dmitry, 35.
Others say at a time when Russian sportsmen are being accused of doping, the country’s image will be revamped. According to a recent poll conducted by Nielsen, a research agency, 70 per cent think Russia’s reputation abroad will improve.
“We are expecting spectators to come from around the world, who will learn about Russia not from the newspapers. Who will learn about Russia live and hopefully will take a part of Russia back home with them,” Russia’s UN envoy Vassily Nebenzia said on June 2nd, speaking to reporters at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
But what do Russians think of their role as World Cup hosts, given that the country cannot be called a football superpower?
Some muse that the championship will enhance the skills of its professional footballers. “Maybe the standard of playing will change in Russia and we could become champions in the near future,” says Oleg, 33, a manager in Moscow.
The Ekaterinburg Stadium is home to one of the country’s oldest football clubs, Ural. Buil in 1953, it was refurbished for the World Cup
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But chances of that are very slim. Russians were a major player in world football during the times of the Soviet Union when the team attended seven World Cup finals. Notably, the Soviet team won the inaugural 1960 European Championship and participated in many Olympic tournaments, earning the gold medal in 1956 and 1988. However, after the collapse of the Union, the Russian team has rarely challenged others for major international honours.
Only in Euro 2008 did Russia excite many when it advanced to the final four teams in the playoffs. Led by Guus Hiddink, the team beat the Dutch 3-1 in an unexpected victory that was called ‘a miracle’ by local media. “Nobody expected this,” a State TV correspondent reporting live from the streets of St Petersburg said amid fans cheering, ‘Russia, Russia…’ and eventually silencing him with their cries.
High on such success, the Russians submitted their bid to host the World Cup in early 2009. “A bid to hold the World Cup is not a simple decision for the sports ministry or for the government. But we need to look ahead. Crises come and go, but football remains,” then sports minister Vitaly Mutko said. Russia was chosen the following year.
During this World Cup, there will be a lot of pressure on the Russian team to perform better than their usual standards. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is expected to attend the opening game in Moscow, when for the first time in its history Russia hosts the tournament. Putin has said he wants to see the team lift the trophy on home soil—something even the most optimistic Russian supporter cannot see happening.
“We know that we are not the favourites, but this does not mean anything,” Russia’s World Cup coach Stanislav Cherchesov said in a TV interview in April. “We want to be ourselves and then see whether that will be enough, how far that takes us.”
There’s also pressure on the government to organise the event well. Russia has been heavily investing into the construction of stadiums and related infrastructure, spending an estimated $11 billion.
Moscow is one of the 11 cities chosen to host the 65 matches of the tournament. The Luzhniki Stadium is the centrepiece of the event—it will host both the opening fixture and the final on July 15th. With a seating capacity of 81,000, it is one of the largest football stadiums in Europe. It was also main stadium for track and field during the 1980 Olympics that the Soviet Union hosted.
Most key tourist locations have some form of FIFA-related decoration, ranging from the countdown clock to giant football themed graffiti
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The other venue—the Otkritie Arena, with a seating capacity of 45,000—was temporarily renamed for the tournament as Spartak Stadium. Built in 2014, it quickly became the home ground of the local club Spartak Moscow, which never had a stadium of their own despite their immense popularity in the capital city.
St Petersburg, which is Russia’s former imperial capital, is the secondary venue of the championship, this stadium hosting as many as seven fixtures, including one semi-final and the third- fourth place match. For those not in the know, the St Petersburg Stadium, designed by the late Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, is home to the city’s club Zenit, who have done better than most other Russian clubs on the European scene.
It also comes as no surprise to anyone that large- scale international sporting events have been under scrutiny over increasing budgets and fears that the venues won’t be finished on time. Russia wasn’t an exception to the rule. The St Petersburg Stadium construction spending went over budget more than once during a decade plagued by a chain of corruption scandals. The city’s head recently said that the cost of the construction work could be estimated at about $ 723 million, although legal proceedings with its former contractor are still going on, so he added that the estimates could be inaccurate.
Another venue, the Cosmos Arena in Samara, which will host six matches, was also embroiled in a corruption scandal where the construction company demanded extra funding for the work. Until recently the stadium didn’t have a pitch, but hopefully it will be completed in time for the start of the tournament. It has a seating capacity of 45,000, a huge dome and spaceship-like features as a tribute to Samara’s role in the Soviet space programme.
Amid the tense political atmosphere, some are hoping when foreigners visit the country, they will discover Russia is an open and welcoming nation
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The most easterly city to host games will be Yekaterinburg situated almost 1,800 km from the capital and seated at the foot of the Ural Mountains, the physical divide between Europe and Asia. This year also marks 100 years since the execution of the Russian Imperial Romanov family, which was exiled to Yekaterinburg after the 1917 Revolution. The Ekaterinburg Stadium is home to one of the country’s oldest football clubs, Ural. Built in 1953, it was refurbished for the World Cup. It, however, has retained its historical facade with Soviet neo- classicism features. A temporary stand positioned partly outside the stadium was especially built for the tournament with the highest seats a long way from the pitch.
Nizhny Novgorod, a city which was closed to foreigners during the Soviet era to safeguard the security of Soviet military research and production facilities, has a new stadium for 45, 000 fans, built in a picturesque location perched on the Volga river. Locals, however, have voiced criticism against this structure, saying that the stadium blocks the historic view of the city. Also, the future-use of the venue is shrouded in doubt, given the city’s local club, Olympiets Nizhny Novgorod, does not compete in the country’s top-flight Russian Premier League.
Kazan is another host city on the Volga—the longest river in Europe—with a 45,000-seater stadium that has been open since 2013, serving as the home ground for Russian Premier League side Rubin Kazan. The newly-built Rostov Arena, located on the left bank of the Don river, will become home to Rostov, the 2014 Russian Cup winners.
The most westerly stadium is located in Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania. It’s a new construction, with a seating capacity of 35,000 built at an estimated cost of $280 million. Following the World Cup, it will be home to the small local club, Baltika.
Kaliningrad is not the only small city that was gifted an unnecessarily large stadium, far larger than the requirement to host the insignificant crowds than are drawn during local matches. A 45,000-seater has sprouted in Saransk—a tiny republic in the province of Mordovia with a population of about 835,000. The same holds true for Volgograd, which now boasts of an arena that can soak in nearly 50,000 spectators. Once the World Cup ends, the Volgograd Arena will be home to football club Rotor, which saw an average of 3,800 spectators in the most recently concluded season.
The city of Sochi isn’t even blessed with a local club team that could take over the Fisht Stadium, which was built for the 2014 Winter Olympics. The authorities claim they have other plans for this off- track venue—use it for the Russian national team’s training camps and also channel a majority of their international friendlies in the coming years.
The allure of this World Cup in Russia is that its vastness and geography ensures travelling fans will be forced to embrace these satellite centres that aren’t on Russia’s tourist trail—rural cities and small towns that one wouldn’t have visited otherwise. This is good for Russian tourism. With close to two million fans expected, Russian officials are certain tourism alone can boost the country’s economy.
Leonid Slutsky, former head coach of the national team, may have once infamously described his country as a “non-footballing nation” (he was fed up with their poor performances and poorer ticket sales) and many may have grudgingly agreed with him. Just 30 days of football across the country, with the entire world watching, shall set the record straight; that football, indeed, is the Russia’s number one sport, greater even than their other love, ice hockey.
“I think football is the greatest love of our population— kids love it, adults cheer for their teams, for Spartak, Lokomotiv,” says Georgy, 22, a student at the People’s Friendship University of Russia. “Football plays a really big role in our sports culture. People sometimes don’t realise that we have a lot of fans closely following the national team as well as other foreign teams,” says Ivan, 23, a sailor.
Whether football is truly the most popular sport in the country is a debate for another time. But what hosting this World Cup will most certainly do is draw the interest of every man, woman and child in Russia towards the game for the duration of the tournament. Whether their collective interest remains piqued once it ends will depend on how well the national team performs on home soil. But for now, the world is watching. As are we.