Manuel Veth –
The representatives of the different host cities of the 2018 FIFA World Cup were all smiles in the media centre at the Krestovsky Stadium in Saint Petersburg. Giving presentations and handing out presents the cities of Yekaterinburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Kaliningrad, Rostov, Saransk, Samara, and Volgograd not only ensured the Futbolgrad Network that the World Cup stadiums would be finished on time, but that their cities would be ready to host the world.
The presentations of the World Cup stadiums were indeed impressive. Furthermore, the presenters were willing to answer almost all the questions asked about the progress of the construction of the World Cup stadiums. Of course, some of the issues were answered with somewhat evasive smiles.
What for example will happen to the World Cup stadiums in Nizhny Novgorod, Kaliningrad, Saransk, Samara and Volgograd following the conclusion of the tournament? All of these cities share the fact that they are not currently home to a Russian Football Premier League club.
World Cup Stadiums – Who Will Fill Them?
Nizhny Novgorod have been without a Russian Football Premier League club since FC Volga have been relegated following the 2013-14 season. Volga have since declared bankruptcy and have been replaced in the city by the ambitious FC Olimpiyets, who have been recently promoted to the second division Football National League (FNL). The representatives of Nizhny Novgorod hope that Olimpiyets can eventually be promoted to the Russian Football Premier League and as a result fill the World Cup stadium in the city with life.
More difficult is the situation in Kaliningrad. Here the stadium will host the local club Baltika Kaliningrad, who are currently playing in the Football National League as well. Located on the Baltic Sea, Kaliningrad is an enclave lodged between Poland and Lithuania and therefore cut off from the Russian Federation. The city, however, possesses a long football tradition dating back to the German Empire and Baltika’s historic stadium is the oldest in Russia.
But construction problems and low attendance for Baltika’s home matches have raised questions on whether Kaliningrad will be a suitable host and manage to create a sustainable project. The organisers told the Futbolgrad Network that the facility will be finished in December and that the stadium’s capacity will be lowered after the World Cup to below 30,000.
In general, the December deadline is the standard answer we received from all the representatives. Furthermore, FIFA requires that all stadiums see at least three competitive games before the tournament kicks off. That is no different in Saransk where the Mordovia Stadium is nearing completion.
The Mordovia Stadium will be a beautiful facility once completed. Constructed for 45,000 people the arena will be downgraded to 30,000 seats following the tournament. But even that might be too much for the local club Mordovia Saransk, who have just been relegated from the FNL to the third tier of Russian football.
Asked about FC Mordovia, the Futbolgrad Network received shrugs. The financial situation at the club puts doubts over whether the World Cup stadium in the city will have a decent team after the World Cup leaves.
Positive Signals From Samara and Volgograd
The situation is a bit better in Samara. Although Krylia Sovetov was recently relegated from the Russian Football Premier League Samara has a long football tradition. Furthermore, the club will likely be a favourite to be promoted from the FNL next season, and the club has always enjoyed good attendance numbers. Furthermore, the Cosmos Arena might be the most beautiful of all the World Cup stadiums next summer.
Shaped like a flower the representatives of the city show an impressive 3D model of the new facility. Construction pictures, however, suggest that there is still a lot of work to be done before the facility can play its test matches in the spring of 2018.
Finally, the last city without a Russian Football Premier League club is Volgograd. Rotor Volgograd was one of the most successful clubs following the fall of the Soviet Union, and the club was one of the few teams to challenge Spartak Moscow in their dominance. Finishing second in 1993 and 1997 Rotor also made history when they eliminated Manchester United in the 1995-96 UEFA Cup.
Financial problems, however, have meant that the club had to declare bankruptcy and was even dissolved at one point. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel as the club has been recently promoted to the FNL. Represented by the pole vaulter, Yelena Isinbayeva Volgograd are determined to make their World Cup stadium a success. Isinbayeva herself appeared for a media event inside the media centre at the day of the final and assured that her city was ready to host the tournament.
Meanwhile, questions about a recent fire at the construction side were met with assurances that the facility itself was intact and that the fire was mostly black smoke from insulation that caught fire outside the facility. The stadium itself saw no damage and will be opened in December.
Rostov and Yekaterinburg Have RFPL Teams
We received the same assurances from Yekaterinburg and Rostov the only two cities outside the Confederations Cup hosts that have clubs playing in the Russian Football Premier League. Both Ural Yekaterinburg and FC Rostov have the following to fill out stadiums, especially if they are downgraded to 30,000 seats, and could fulfil the sustainability aspect of the World Cup.
But what about the Confederations Cup stadiums? The opening matches were somewhat in the news because of the seemingly low attendance. Sochi here was mainly criticised. The city on the Black Sea is home to a fantastic stadium, but at the same time seems unable to generate real interest in football. Low attendance has been particularly visible in Germany’s opening game against Australia. Furthermore, the city has no professional club.
But low attendance numbers at the opening games could be somewhat explained by high ticket prices, up to $100, which was simply too much for most Russians. Furthermore, the sporting value in a match between Australia and Germany can be questioned. In the end, however, the attendance at the tournament picked up and the Spartak Stadium in Moscow, the Kazan Arena and the Krestovsky Stadium in Saint Petersburg proved to be excellent venues that are all ready for the World Cup next summer.
Despite the doubts ahead of the tournament and the slow start to the tournament regarding attendance, the Confederations Cup had the third highest attendance numbers of any Confederations Cup in history just behind Brazil and Germany. There were especially doubts over the readiness of the Krestovsky Stadium, but the facility in Saint Petersburg got ready just in time to host the tournament and turned out to be a wonderful facility.
Confederations Cup Lessons for World Cup Stadiums
Whether Zenit will be able to fill the stadium to full capacity next season remains to be seen though. Big name signings and an extended run in the Europa League would certainly help. But to fill 68,000 seats is certainly ambitious. The same applies to the Kazan Arena, which is a beautiful facility, but up to this point has proven to be too large for Rubin Kazan. Like Zenit, however, Rubin have made ambitious signings this summer, and sporting success could help to attract more fans to the stadium.
Spartak Stadium in the meantime is the crown jewel of the four stadiums used at the Confederations Cup. Spartak Moscow regularly enjoy the best attendance in the league, and the stadium is in many ways the perfect football stadium. With Champions League football next season guaranteed the club would have no problem filling the stadium on a regular basis.
With one year to go and with many facilities opening in December it will be interesting to follow the developments of the different World Cup stadiums in Russia—whether clubs will be able to fill the facilities after the World Cup is the biggest question mark. Perhaps the most significant indication of how sustainable next summer’s tournament will be will be answered this season as Zenit, Spartak and Rubin will make use of their brand new Confederations Cup stadiums.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist and social media junior editor at Bundesliga.com. He is also a holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States,” which will be available in print soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @ManuelVeth.