If the 2014 World Cup was hosted by what is arguably the biggest footballing country on the planet, Brazil, then the next tournament will be the responsibility of simply the biggest — Russia. There may be four years to go until the world’s top players arrive en masse in Moscow, but the speculation and the inevitable scandals have already begun. From political intrigue to the fears keeping fans of Russia’s much-maligned national side awake at night, here is The Calvert Journal’s (early doors) guide to everything to watch out for ahead of and during the 2018 World Cup. Let the countdown begin…
From the 2012 AEC summit in Vladivostok to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, high-profile international events hosted by Russia have invariably been accompanied by allegations of massive corruption. You can be fairly sure that it is only a matter of time before we hear similar claims over Russia’s preparations for the 2018 World Cup. Indeed, opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny has already highlighted what he says are shady dealings in connection with the construction of a World Cup stadium in the city of Yekaterinburg. “Imagine how much cash they nicked with tricks like these in preparations for the Olympics and how much they’ll steal at the 2018 World Cup,” Navalny wrote in a blog post last year. So far, the Russian government estimates the World Cup will cost the country around £11bn, which would make it the most expensive in history. But given that the cost of the Winter Olympics rocketed from an initial estimate of £7.4bn to an estimated eye-watering £31bn, it’s likely that the price tag for the World Cup will rise and rise. Watch this space.
The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi were briefly threatened by ultimately unsuccessful calls for a boycott of the event over Russia’s notorious “gay propaganda” law. The campaign to wreck Russia’s next big party has already begun. This time around, gay rights campaigners have been joined in their appeal for FIFA to strip Russia of the World Cup by political activists angry over the Kremlin’s annexation of Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea. Russia’s well-documented problems with racism at football stadiums have not gone unnoticed either. Late last year, Manchester City star Yaya Touré warned after a Champions League match near Moscow that black players could boycott the 2018 World Cup if the Russian authorities fail to stamp out racist chanting at matches. Touré is not the only world-famous player to have suffered at the hands of Russia’s fans: Brazilian World Cup winner Roberto Carlos was regularly targeted during his spell at Anzhi Makhachkala. Optimists suggest that a massive influx of black fans during the tournament will go a long way to changing public attitudes; pessimists warn it is a recipe for disaster.
The 2014 World Cup was seen as intrinsically tied to the re-election hopes of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. The 2018 tournament looks set to be equally as politically charged. Presidential elections are due in Russia in March 2018 — three months before the World Cup kicks off. So far, President Vladimir Putin is holding his cards close to his chest on a possible run for a fourth term of office, which would keep him in the Kremlin until 2024. While known to be lukewarm in his attitude to football, Putin clearly enjoyed the prestige that came with being the head of state of an Olympic host country; it seems likely he will similarly relish the much greater status of president of a World Cup nation. However, if he does stand and win again in 2018, Putin’s re-election could trigger the kind of street protests that hit Russia both before and after his controversial triumph at disputed presidential polls in 2012. All of which could make for an interesting backdrop to the opening game, set to take place just a month after the presidential inauguration ceremony.
Right now, the plan is for Russia to host the World Cup in 12 stadiums in 11 cities: Kaliningrad, Kazan, Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Rostov-on-Don, St Petersburg, Samara, Saransk, Sochi, Volgograd, and Yekaterinburg. No World Cup matches will take place any further east than the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, which is two time zones and some 900 miles away from Moscow. This means both Siberia and Russia’s Far East will miss out on hosting matches. The western extreme of the 2018 World Cup is Kaliningrad, Russia’s Baltic exclave tucked between Poland and Lithuania. Both the opening game and the final are due to take place at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, which is currently undergoing a massive revamp. The majority of the 2018 World Cup stadiums will be built entirely from scratch, at an estimated cost of just over £4bn. So far, only the stadiums in Sochi and Kazan have been constructed, although reports say Moscow’s second World Cup stadium, Spartak, is just weeks away from completion.
In a bid to remove the current headaches involved with organising a trip to Russia, Putin has pledged that visa requirements, which currently pretty much apply to anyone not from a former Soviet republic, will be scrapped for the duration of the tournament. As in Brazil, fans in Russia will have to travel some massive distances between host cities, which are to be split into four clusters. Planes and trains will be the main modes of transport, although Russia’s World Cup organising committee is considering the use of boats to ferry fans between host cities on the Don and Volga rivers.
Russians certainly know how to have fun and they love hosting big events: even some of the greatest critics of the Winter Olympics in Sochi got carried along by public enthusiasm once the 2014 Games began. However, in order to fire up a public passion for the World Cup, Russia’s national team will have to do something it has not done since the collapse of the Soviet Union — get out of its group. The omens are not good: Russia not only failed to advance this summer from what was seen as one of the easiest World Cup groups, containing Belgium, South Korea and Algeria, it was also unable to record a single victory. However, if Russia does manage to put in a good performance, they will be assured very public support. When Russia beat Holland 3-1 to advance to the semi-finals of Euro 2008, Moscow saw the biggest spontaneous celebration since the end of the Second World War, as an estimated 700,000 people took to the streets of the capital. There is also the very real danger, however, that Russia could flop spectacularly: this is, after all, a team that lost 7-1 to Portugal in a World Cup qualifier in the not-too-distant past. A repeat of that now very Brazilian scoreline in 2018 would be a hammer-blow to the nation’s pride.