It will be another four years before another ball is kicked at a World Cup, after the Germans finished off proceedings in Rio on Sunday. The next action will be in June 2018 in Moscow: Lionel Messi will be 31, Wayne Rooney will be 32, and Vladimir Putin is likely to be watching, having just been elected for another six years as president of Russia, taking him to 2024 in the Kremlin (unless you believe the opposition figures who suggest that by this point Russia could be engulfed in revolution).
The buildup to Russia’s first World Cup is likely to bring all the excitement and controversy that usually come with such tournaments. Set to be the most expensive World Cup ever, the majority of stadiums will have to be built from scratch, and sweeping infrastructure improvements have been promised to allow fans to move between cities.
The World Cup will be played in only a small part of the world’s largest country. There will be no games in Siberia, with Yekaterinburg the most eastern host city. It is two time zones ahead of Moscow, but six time zones behind the farthest eastern points in Russia’s Pacific.
Neither will there be any place for the restive North Caucasus regions of Chechnya and Dagestan, where impressive stadiums have been built in recent years and huge money invested in the local teams. Given the local Islamic insurgency, the regions were not even suggested when Russia bid for the tournament.
Nevertheless, there will be plenty of logistical problems when it comes to travelling between the cities. Russia’s train network is impressive but hardly fast: getting from Moscow to Yekaterinburg, for example, takes 24 hours. Flying is not the terrifying experience it once was, with more modern aeroplanes and better service, but is still likely to present a logistical and financial challenge to fans. One host city is Kaliningrad – an exclave hundreds of miles away from the rest of Russia – on the Baltic coast.
The country currently only has three stadiums with a capacity of more than 35,000, and two-thirds of the stadiums for the tournament are being built from new. The Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, which will host the final, will keep its outer facade but is being rebuilt inside.
Details about costs and completion dates are hard to come by, as is information on how much of the ambitious high-speed rail network is likely to be built before 2018.
A recent report by the accountancy group KPMG estimates the cost of stadium construction alone at £4.82bn. Total costs are thought to be at least £12.2bn, twice as much as in Brazil, and the figure could rise dramatically.
Criticism from the west before the Winter Olympics in Sochi over human rights issues and widespread corruption was met with confusion and anger in Russia, where many government officials believe it was a product of “Russophobia” or a specific plot to discredit the country.
Several politicians say the Sochi criticism was a turning point in their attitude towards the west, which may even have affected subsequent events in Ukraine. Similar criticism in the runup to the World Cup is unlikely to be taken well, even if the potential for kickbacks and corruption in staging the huge event could dwarf those at Sochi, which was several times more expensive than any other Olympics.
There is also the intriguing fact that the World Cup is due just a month after the likely next Russian presidential elections, when Putin may well secure himself another six years in power.
Given the abysmal showing of the Russian team in Brazil – going out in the group stages despite relatively easy competition – it is unlikely that the Russian side will come anywhere close to providing the country with a World Cup win on home soil. But for Putin, the tournament is likely to be another chance to prove that Russia has returned to the world stage under his stewardship.
The next four years are likely to see attention on financial and logistical matters. But the World Cup in Russia should also be a great event – giving tens of thousands of foreigners a chance to discover the country without the cumbersome visa process, and involving Russia in a global festival of sport. Putin said earlier this month that players and supporters would not need a visa to enter Russia during the tournament.
Russians know how to stage a party, and it will not – contrary to popular belief – be cold. Summer evenings in most of Russia are long and warm: there cannot be much that beats watching a World Cup semi-final in St Petersburg before strolling through its beautiful streets and partying through the summer “white night”, when the sun barely sets.
That, of course, is providing that the city’s new stadium is built in time. It was due to be finished by 2008, but has been plagued by construction problems and funding issues, and is now promised to be ready at the end of 2016.
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