A hundred days later, has Russia's $14bn World Cup investment paid off?

Andrew Roth on 22 October 2018

Russia is not a footballing country, the former trainer for the national side Leonid Slutsky infamously alleged in 2016.

His proof was simple: look at the poor attendance despite billions of rubles poured into new marquee arenas for Spartak and CSKA. “Earlier I was sure that new infrastructure would sharply change people’s relationship to football,” he told Sport Express. “But practice shows that I was wrong.”

One delirious World Cup and an estimated $14bn later, has anything changed?

One hundred days have passed since France won their first World Cup since 1998. Since then, league attendance is up somewhat, the striker Artem Dzyuba has become Russia’s unlikeliest cultural phenomenon and the football press is laser-focused on two prominent Russian footballers who went on a bender and assaulted a state television anchor’s driver and a government employee. Even the Kremlin has weighed in on their criminal trial.

It may be too early to say what Russia’s World Cup legacy will be but the sport is definitely now front and centre.

“When it comes to World Cup fever, it has worked on the one hand,” said Sasha Goryunov, a Russian football journalist based in the UK. “But then you get stories like [Pavel] Mamaev and [Aleksandr] Kokorin smashing up Moscow and people are back to hating footballers again, saying they’re all idiots.”

The summer already seems like a half-forgotten dream, when Peruvians and Colombians danced into the balmy Saransk night and Vladimir Putin shared awkward handshakes with Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman during the 5-0 opener.

When it comes to the arenas, there have been some early success stories. Stadiums in Moscow, St Petersburg and Rostov are posting strong figures for the Russian Premier League season, and overall attendance for the league is up. CSKA managed to turn out 80,000 fans for a spectacular upset of Real Madrid at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium in the Champions League this month. There have even been surprises in Russia’s second division, such as Rotor Volgograd, who have attracted more than 20,000 fans per match.

But as World Cup fever passes, other venues – such as those in Sochi, Kazan, or the seemingly cursed Kaliningrad Stadium (which was beset with construction problems) – appear set to fulfil dire predictions of white elephants dotted throughout European Russia.

FC Ural struggle to fill one-third of the stadium in Ekaterinburg.
FC Ural struggle to fill one-third of the stadium in Ekaterinburg. Photograph: Donat Sorokin/Tass

After a strong start to the season, when even remote Mordovia’s stadium was boasting more than 20,000 fans per match, attendance at Russian Premier League and first division games has settled. Fans have satiated their curiosity to see the new venues, but are not quite interested enough in following the fortunes of the new PFC Sochi or Baltika Kaliningrad, who are hurtling down toward Russia’s third division at great speed. The stadium holds 35,000 fans, but hosted just 4,367 for a defeat against Nizhny Novgorod this month – less than the number that attended before the new stadium was built.

With limited interest in the football on offer, organisers are looking for other ways to pack stadiums with high upkeep costs and no clear path to financial viability in the next half-decade.

Leningrad, the St Petersburg ska punk band led by the charismatic frontman Sergey Shnurov, recently announced that it would play concerts at nine World Cup stadiums next summer. The band brought in more than 65,000 fans to a concert at St Petersburg Arena on Friday, possibly the biggest concert in Russia since the days of the Soviet Union.

In Ekaterinburg, there was a minor scandal after reports the stadium would rent out space to companies for new year parties, a boozy holiday tradition that struck some as undignified for a stadium that cost nearly a quarter of a billion dollars. The stadium complex has already hosted IT seminars and an automobile expo, while Premier League FC Ural struggles to fill one-third of the stadium.

It may not be the most glorious end for these heavyweight arenas, the products of a decade’s planning, but Russia’s leadership had long understood they wouldn’t pay off financially, despite a widely touted “legacy” plan to ensure a smooth handover from the federal budget to local regions.

“As you know, when it’s a state project in Russia, longevity and the project paying for itself isn’t the number one concern,” Goryunov said. “The government is mainly happy with the World Cup going really, really well.”

It provides a stark contrast to the Sochi Olympics, the $50bn sporting project panned in the western press because of rushed construction and reports of corruption. Russian officials still bristle at the western coverage, which was seen as a hit-job, and the Ukrainian revolution and annexation of Crimea overshadowed the conclusion of the games.

In that context, a few white elephants may be more than acceptable. Brazil and South Africa faced similar troubles after their World Cups, and Putin has been consistent in his praise of the World Cup organisers. “Large competitions hold an important place in the development and promotion of sport,” the Russian president said, referring to the World Cup and the Olympics, as well as the 2013 Summer Universiade in Kazan. And putting aside the battery charges against Kokorin and Mamaev, Russia has a bona fide footballing hero in Zenit striker Dzyuba, the star of Russia’s Cinderella run to the quarter-finals.

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He also barely made the squad, and was known for sparring with coaches and teammates. Now he is GQ Russia’s Man of the Year and Russian drivers can have him narrate directions on a popular navigation system.

“It was mad,” Goryunov said of a Zenit match against Yenisei Krasnoyarsk in Siberia this year. “Dzyuba was getting absolutely mobbed by this crowd of thousands of kids. I’ve certainly never seen anything like that before. The whole Dzyuba phenomenon has been quite interesting.”

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