Russia 2018: Major challenges for next World Cup hosts

By Rafael Saakov
BBC Russian Service

image copyrightAFP
image captionFifa's focus will now be on the World Cup 2018 host Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin

After what was largely considered to be a successful World Cup in Brazil, international attention now turns to the next hosts, Russia.

Whether current political tensions between Russia and the West will have any bearing on the staging of the tournament remains to be seen.

What does seem assured is that the 2018 World Cup is set to top Brazil 2014 as the most expensive in history, with Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko saying the budget for the tournament could total $40bn, having earlier estimated it at $19bn.

Critics in Russia point to the fact that the minimum capacity for World Cup venues is 45,000, while the average attendance for the Russian Premier League is 11,500.

"Stadiums have a function, but they must not just lie empty," says Nikolay Levshits, a Moscow-based campaigner and activist.

"The construction costs could also be reduced by private investors and sponsors.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionRussian Premier League clubs have been sanctioned over the behaviour of their fans

"I support the World Cup in Russia but not at the cost of withdrawing money from schools, hospitals or the pockets of pensioners."

Russian journalist Igor Rabiner says Russian organisers need to learn from Brazil's example.

"The more comfortable the stadium is for supporters, the more people will go to matches," he says.

"But a city like Saransk [one of the host cities for the 2018 finals, with a population of 300,000] does not really need a 40,000-seat arena.

"So we need to follow the example of Arena Corinthians in Sao Paulo, where some stands will be partially disassembled after the World Cup."

The World Cup will be the second major sporting event Russia will host in four years, after the Winter Olympics in Sochi this year.

Despite the huge costs involved, Mr Levshits, who is a regular participant in opposition demonstrations, says he does not expect to see protests on the level seen in Brazil.

"Such protests here would harm those who take part in them, as state-controlled TV would try to portray the protesters as trying to disrupt a sporting celebration," he says.

"We can only voice our concerns or opposition through a calm and reasonable information-sharing effort."

In the handover ceremony in Rio de Janeiro on 13 July, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he hoped the World Cup would help Russia to fight racism - one of the biggest problems facing the country as it prepares to host the 2018 finals.

"[Fifa] President [Sepp] Blatter puts a lot of personal effort into addressing social issues, and we hope that the preparations for the World Cup in Russia will also contribute to tasks, such as fighting drugs, racism and other challenges we face today," Mr Putin said.

image copyrightAP
image captionManchester City's Ivorian midfielder Yaya Toure is among several players to have been racially abused by fans in Russia

Former Brazil defender Roberto Carlos and Congolese international Christopher Samba - who both played for Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala - as well as Manchester City's Ivorian midfielder Yaya Toure, are among those to have been racially abused in Russia in recent years.

However, dealing with racism is not the only problem for football authorities in Russia. Hooliganism and violence remain major problems in the country, with fans continuing to clash with police and disrupt matches.

Zenit St Petersburg - one of the biggest names in the Russian Premier League - were sanctioned in May, after their fans invaded the pitch during a home game against Dynamo Moscow - an incident which also saw Dynamo captain and Russian international Vladimir Granat punched in the head by a Zenit fan.

Journalist Igor Rabiner, from Russian football website Championat, says that authorities need to launch a proper anti-racism and hooliganism campaign over the next four years to avoid any of these kinds of scenes being repeated at the World Cup.

"Hooligans in Russia always go unpunished," he says. "I don't understand how someone could not be prosecuted for hitting a player on the pitch.

"More importantly, it encourages others to copy such behaviour."

Since Russia was chosen to host the World Cup in December 2010, none of the 12 arenas named has seen any football action of note.

image copyrightReuters
image captionMoscow's Luzhniki stadium - which will host the final - has been closed for refurbishment since last year

Among those which are going to be opened soon are arenas in Kazan, Sochi and Moscow.

One of two arenas in Moscow - including a new home for Russia's most popular club Spartak Moscow - is due to open on 5 September.

The second stadium in the capital, the Luzhniki - which will host the final - is under huge reconstruction and has been closed since it hosted the 2013 World Athletics Championships.

Major improvements to airports, railway stations, along with new hotels, are promised across the 11 host cities.

It is expected that, as with the Winter Olympics, costs will be covered by a mixture of state funds and private investors.

Moscow, St Petersburg, Sochi and Kazan will also host the Confederations Cup in 2017 and infrastructure in these cities is already better than in the seven others.

The Russian government only chose contractors in March of this year for the construction of stadiums in the other seven venues of Nizhny Novgorod, Volgograd, Samara, Yekaterinburg, Kaliningrad, Saransk and Rostov.

Sepp Blatter said last week in Brazil that Fifa may yet decide to reduce the number of stadiums at Russia 2018 from 12 to 10. That may happen mainly because of concerns over construction deadlines and the future use of the stadiums.

"We are not going to be in a situation, as is the case of one, two or even three stadiums in [2010 host country] South Africa, where it is a problem of what you do with these stadiums," Mr Blatter said.

Those comments caused come confusion in Russia, with the government saying immediately afterwards that it was too early to speak about any changes to venues. A Fifa delegation will visit Russia in September to discuss the plans with local organisers.

As for security and the safety of fans, Mr Rabiner says Brazil has shown that you can organise a safe tournament, even in a country with a high crime rate. The challenge, he says, is changing attitudes.

"Russia is a rather closed country and not very multicultural, so we need to learn a lot. Russians should be friendly and hospitable towards people of all races and ethnicities."

Additional reporting by Stephen Fottrell.

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