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The eyes of the world are on Russia
January 15, 2013, 5:01 pm

I remember the sense of emotion I felt as I sat in the FIFA headquarters in Zurich in early December 2010. Sepp Blatter had just announced Russia had won the right to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup. I am not Russian, but I have worked within Russia football for almost a decade and instantly I could see just what a positive impact this competition could have on not just the footballing community, but the country as a whole for generations to come.

2018 may seem like a life time away, however the next five and a half years are going to pass very quickly for Russia. The country faces an enormous task to get everything finished in time for the first match on July 8, every single stadium will have to be either rebuilt or constructed from scratch, while roads, airports and high speed rail links will also have to be built. However, the economic and social benefits that lay in wait are numerous and could change the country forever.

Taking football’s biggest tournament to developing countries is nothing new, as Russia will be the third successive BRICS nation to hold the sport’s biggest competition after South Africa in 2010, and Brazil in 2014. There is a sense of adventure in bringing the World Cup into new markets; however such a decision also has its numerous pitfalls.

Russia must be “organised”

Both South Africa and Brazil faced or are facing a race against the clock to get the stadiums and infrastructure finished on time and according to John Beattie, who’s had over 20 years’ experience, as the stadium manager at Arsenal Football Club, the most important thing is “to be organised” and, “to learn from other experiences”. “There is no point in trying to re-invent the wheel when there is a whole load of experience out there who have been through such a process”, commented the Emirates stadium chief.

“Russia will have its own problems as each country has its own idiosyncrasies, but of course you can limit these problems if you have a well-structured plan”. In theory this should not be a problem for Russia, as the country’s organisational committee has stressed that all of the stadiums will be ready for the Confederations Cup in 2017, which is seen as a test event ahead of 2018.

The 2006 World Cup in Germany was widely seen by fans and journalists I have spoken to as the best competition in recent history, due to the excellent organisation, infrastructure and convenience for fans. It will be a tough ask for Russia and Brazil as it was for South Africa to try to emulate Germany, but just like the African nation, the 2018 hosts should not even try. Germany had a massive advantage in that most of the transport links and stadia were already in place when they won the bid to host the tournament.

Creating a legacy

However, South Africa left its own lasting legacy, such as the warmth and colourful nature of its fans, to the lasting memory that is the vuvuzela. This is something Russia can easily emulate in five and a half years’. This will be a time when the country can try to eradicate lingering Cold War stereotypes and show to the world a modern developed country, which also has an exceedingly rich cultural history.

One just has to look at how the negative image of Ukraine changed after UEFA Euro 2012. Yes there were problems with slow trains and inflated hotel prices, but none of the concerns about ‘fans going home in a coffin’, which were expressed in a British TV documentary on the eve of the tournament, were found to be true. On the contrary, the dozens of fans I spoke to in Kiev and Donetsk only had positive things to say about the former Soviet state.

Russia has chosen 12 stadiums, which are located in 11 different cities to host the tournament. While Moscow and St. Petersburg already have decent transport links, other cities such as Saransk and Volgograd will need to spend billions of dollars in order to make sure they will be able to adequately welcome the tens of thousands of fans that will attend the event. The president of the Russian Football Union, Nikolay Tolstykh mentioned that the country has been looking at the experiences of both South Africa and Brazil, but have also, “been looking at other examples”.

“We have an organisational committee, which is looking at countries which have hosted major football events. We will be looking to learn from their positive experiences, as well as inviting highly qualified specialists to help us plan ahead to hold the 2018 FIFA World Cup”. The tournament will receive some state funds; though private investors will also help out to cover most of the costs, which are expected to run into tens of billions of dollars. It is this legacy that is perhaps the most appealing part of holding the World Cup in Russia. Of course football fans will have a once in a life time opportunity to see the best team’s from the globe on their doorstep, but the tournament will benefit a much wider segment of the nation.

Stadium issues

The World Cup presents Russia with a brilliant opportunity to provide fantastic stadiums and infrastructure for generations to come. Unfortunately there has been little investment in developing stadia in the country since the Moscow Olympics in 1980. One only has to Google ‘Eduard Streltsov Stadium’ to get a feeling of what I am talking about. Although significant strides have been made in the last few year years, there is still a long way to go, while Andrei Peregudov, who’s on the board of directors for the VTB Arena stadium, which will be completed in Moscow in 2016 says, “we in Russia never thought about building stadiums as a commercial object, which is done in the USA, Canada and the United Kingdom for example. We have to try and make money from the sports building, which will be a completely new industry for us.

Going to football matches in Russia is not the most pleasant of experiences. The stadiums are either dilapidated or soulless arenas, where the numerous security checks, the lack of decent facilities and the difficulty of getting there in the first place, put off thousands of potential fans from going to watch their club week in week out, when they can just watch their favourite team from the comfort of their living room. It will be interesting to note in the next few years once these new stadiums are built and transport links are improved, whether there will be an increase in spectators who pass through the turnstiles.

With the World Cup looming, the eyes of the world are on Russia and I believe there is absolutely no question of there being any delays in being ready for the biggest sporting event the country has ever hosted, as this would cause massive embarrassment for the country’s government – something they are looking to avoid. One just has to look at the preparations for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. There have been a few hiccups along the way, but with just over a year to go, the city is well on the way to being ready to host Russia’s first ever Winter games. The only thing left to do is to prepare a football team that can win the World Cup on home soil, which will probably prove to be a much tougher task.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.