Russia’s 2018 World Cup – A Conversation Beyond Sport

Russia’s 2018 World Cup – A Conversation Beyond Sport

Sven Daniel Wolfe –

Sven Daniel Wolfe from the University of Zürich is looking ahead to some of the issues Russia could be facing when the county is hosting the 2018 World Cup.

What’s happening with the next World Cup?

The 2018 World Cup will be in Russia, running from 14 June to 15 July, hosting 32 football teams—and their fans –from around the world. It will be held in twelve stadiums and eleven cities across the European part of Russia. The host cities are a mix of large and small, cities that are better known to foreigners and cities that are almost unknown outside Russia.

These cities are changing in preparation for the World Cup. Sometimes the changes are dramatic and sometimes they’re subtler. I’m paying attention to these changes—what’s happening, why it’s happening, and trying to understand why its happens the way it does.

I watch the World Cup because I love football. Why should I care about this?

We all know that football is a global phenomenon and the worldwide audience for the World Cup is over a billion people. What happens in the World Cup matters to a lot of people. The World Cup is big business too, involving thousands of people in many different countries and generating billions of dollars in revenue.

But this tournament also changes the cities and countries that host it. This means we can ask questions about people and places changing because of the World Cup. We can see how the tournament affects living conditions for the people there, or we can explore how a nation sees itself and wishes to be seen. We can see how event preparations in the city shape and are shaped by politics, or we can ask questions about how the country is using the World Cup in a larger political sense. We can also look at impacts and see what happens after a nation hosts. In this way, the World Cup gives us an opportunity to see into lives that we might otherwise miss.

What are some things we can look for in Russia 2018?

Since Russian preparations are already well underway, let’s look at what’s happening in the host cities to get ready. The preparatory period for any World Cup is complicated. The event is huge—it’s not easy to understand everything that is happening – so we have to be clever about what questions we ask.

In any host city, we can see a basic dynamic: FIFA has requirements for their tournament and the host nation has a legal obligation to fulfill these requirements. Everything flows from this contractual relationship: FIFA makes the rules and the hosts implement them.

The complications arise when we realize there can be space between what FIFA requires and what actually happens. Things get more complicated when you factor in local, regional, and national politics, and then explore how different actors try to leverage the preparations to fulfill their own agendas.

Since I’m an urban geographer, I like to see how FIFA’s requirements play out within these political interactions, displayed in the urban landscape. I start by asking basic questions like: Where is the stadium? How do guests arrive from abroad? Where do they stay? How do they get from one place to another?

The current state of the 2018 World Cup Stadium in Volgograd - Image by Samorok CC-BY-SA-4.0

The current state of the 2018 World Cup Stadium in Volgograd – Image by Samorok CC-BY-SA-4.0

So in the host city of Volgograd, for example, local and regional politicians jockey for funding from Moscow in order to enact their vision of how the city should be, all while fulfilling FIFA’s requirements for hosting. At the same time, the current economic crisis in Russia makes this process harder because money is tighter than expected.

Moscow officials cut World Cup funding for everything except projects that are directly related to the event, but this raises more questions: Where is the line between investments that are “for the event” and those that are “for something else”? If a city’s airport and football stadium are ready for the World Cup, but the roads connecting them are full of potholes and the transit system needs work, how can the city host?

How are preparations going in the host cities? What changes can we see?

From the organizers’ point of view, most cities are on or ahead of schedule with their preparations, though there are a few notable delays. People are working around the clock on construction sites all across Russia. In Samara, for example, workers have been outside building the stadium all night in temperatures of -20 and below. The organizers will make sure that vital infrastructure is finished on time, even where there are currently delays.

A different question is whether and how hosting the World Cup will benefit residents of the host cities after the event is gone. This is an important question of competing priorities in the World Cup development process.

The World Cup stadium in Yekaterinburg - Image by Ella-Alisa CC-BY-SA-3.0

The World Cup stadium in Yekaterinburg – Image by Ella-Alisa CC-BY-SA-3.0

For example, the host city of Ekaterinburg is investing vast sums into its football stadium but, at the same time, the city has not opened a new metro station since 2012, and they will not have a station next to the stadium for the tournament.

When authorities say that the World Cup is “for the people,” I wonder if a new stadium would benefit the people more than an expanded metro system? Still, the World Cup does force authorities to invest in the city, and there will be new roads and a new transit system and new hotels and new business opportunities. A subtler question to ask is who benefits from these investments and who is left out.

I’m curious how these developments are covered in the media.

There can be controversial moments in preparing for a World Cup, and the news media covers this in different ways, depending on who is doing the reporting. Personally, I am interested in seeing how foreign media covers Russia, comparing this to how Russian media covers the preparations, and then comparing both of these to my own experience.

Within Russia, there are a number of good sources of information, but at the same time, as in most host countries, the authorities are keen to spread a message that the tournament is unequivocally good for the country. Critical views do exist, of course, but my opinion is that they are more rare.

These issues exist between geopolitics and urban development and they are often politically thorny. This is particularly true given the current political situation between Russia, Europe, and the United States. Nevertheless, the media lets us look from afar at what is happening in the host cities. If you combine this with event announcements from FIFA and press releases from construction companies and other associated businesses, you can build up a good picture of what direction developments are taking.

How does Russia compare to other World Cup hosts?

In both South Africa and Brazil (hosts for the previous two tournaments) we’ve seen a legacy of oversized, under-used infrastructure—what we call White Elephants. This could be a problem in the Russian host cities too.

Originally, Ekaterinburg was going to build a 45,000 capacity stadium, but organizers negotiated with FIFA for a 35,000-seater instead. After the event, temporary seating infrastructure will be removed and the stadium will have a final capacity of 23,000.

This is still too large for the city’s football needs, but we can see organizers thinking about the White Elephant problem and taking steps to address it, even if those steps might be insufficient.

Kaliningrad Stadium with a capacity of 35,000 seats is to be built for Russia 2018 on Oktyabrsky Island, right in the heart of Kaliningrad. Ⓒ LOC

Kaliningrad Stadium with a capacity of 35,000 seats is to be built for the  2018 World Cup on Oktyabrsky Island, right in the heart of Kaliningrad. Ⓒ LOC

Other Russian host cities may be in worse positions, however, regarding their stadiums. Saransk, Samara, and Kaliningrad are building oversized stadiums too, but these cities are much smaller than Ekaterinburg and there is less chance of using the facilities once the games are gone (though Kaliningrad authorities just announced that they will be using the stadium for restaurants and a hotel, once the tournament is complete).

In general, the problem is that infrastructure is being built to suit the requirements of the event, and these do not necessarily correspond with the needs of the people in the city.

Could we see a happy ending to World Cup development?

Potentially, Russian host city administrations could use the development impulse from the World Cup to improve roads and public transit infrastructure. More than new stadiums or luxury hotels, this investment would legitimately benefit many residents. If the cities do make investments for their people, and if these investments actually deliver, I think that people will remember this as a positive legacy of the World Cup.

There are problems here, however, of time and scope: there is a limited time for World Cup development, and as the deadline approaches, organizers tend to sacrifice everything for the immediate needs of the event. So organizers will certainly build a new road to the airport and new roads around the stadium, but will they have time to build or repair roads in other areas of the city? Will they have time to introduce an improved transit system? Or will they build a transit system that only serves the event and then disappears?

In the end, preparing for the World Cup could leave Russian cities with international quality football stadiums, renovated airports, upgraded transit systems, and new hotels for guests. It could also bring attention to Russian cities both nationally and internationally, and perhaps these cities will host increasing numbers of prestigious international sporting events, trade fairs, and conferences.

Or, possibly the World Cup could leave Russian cities with expensive, oversized stadiums that drain city budgets for upkeep costs, alongside airports that sees few visitors, in cities filled with empty hotels and aging, overburdened transit systems. The question is whether regional and municipal managers can leverage resources from Moscow authorities to invest in projects that will serve the long-term needs of the city and not only the short-term needs of the event.

Sven Daniel Wolfe is a researcher and doctoral student at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. He is a geographer focusing on politics, culture, and cities in Russia. He has a masters degree in political science from the European University in St Petersburg, Russia, and another masters in geography from the University of Zurich. His PhD explores the 2018 World Cup in Russia, looking at mobile policies and urban development. Follow Sven Daniel on Twitter @sdvolk or check out the Space & Organization group [].