Thursday, 2 December 2010

A Russian World Cup in 2018: Some premature Q&As

Much as it seems as though the ink has only just dried on the FIFA ExCom ballot papers, and the tears have dried on the faces of many England fans (okay, sorry for the melodrama), it's time to come to terms with the fact that in less than eight years many football fans will be heading to Russia to watch World Cup 2018.

So what should we expect from a World Cup in Russia? Eight years is a long time in Russia - a place that barely 20 years ago was operating a state economic monopoly and where chewing gum was something of a novelty - so there's every chance we'll look back on this article in 2018 and laugh.

But here's my attempt to answer a few of the pressing questions about what it might be like to attend a World Cup in Russia.

Russia - sounds cold. Better pack the thermals, there's going to be snow all over the place, right?
Wrong. Temperatures on St Petersburg, the most northerly host city, regularly tip 30 degrees C in June and July. In fact, it'll be pretty sweltering around the cities during the tournament. Moscow's underground is a bit of an unpleasant place to be in mid-summer. But it'll be fantastic on the Black Sea coast resort of Sochi. Bring a beach towel.

Well that all sounds lovely - but Russia's also massive. How am I going to get around?
The Russia bid team sensibly decided not to stretch the tournament across the country's entire expanse. In fact, the host cities cover just three of Russia's nine time zones. Ekaterinburg is the easternmost host city, Kaliningrad the westernmost, and a flight between the two generally takes just over three hours - the same as a flight from London to Moscow. 

The chances of someone having to make that flight, however, are slim - the host cities have been separated out into regional clusters, with the implicit assumption that a team's World Cup group matches will all be staged within a single cluster. So the issue for most fans will be travelling around a single cluster.

In this respect Russia still has a long way to go. Internal flights are cheap and convenient, but I'm not sure enough flights are yet available to transport large numbers of fans. Similarly train travel is fairly convenient - though the duration of many journeys can be a shock to many Western Europeans. A trip train between, say, Saransk and Kazan (two of the nearest neighbours in the Central Cluster) is eight to nine hours.

And then there is travel by road. Such is the parlous state of many of the intercity highways in Russia that I have personally rarely used them. One thing is certain - Russia plans to build plenty of new roads before 2018. Work has recently begun, for example, to improve the M-4 highway which runs from Moscow down to the Black Sea, the first time Russia has ever attempted to build a motorway as a single unit, rather than improving it piecemeal. Work is also planned for the M-5, linking Moscow with the Ural city of Chelyabinsk - and at nearly 2000km long they'd better get cracking.

I've heard Russia's full of mafia and a dangerous place. Should I worry about going?
My first comment is this: let's not pretend Russia is all sweetness and light. Bad things can happen. But, and I'm furiously knocking on wood as I say this, nothing bad has ever happened to me as a tourist (those italics being an important caveat) in Russia. Like every place you visit, you need to observe some of the ground rules and you'll be fine. The standard exhortions to keep your valuables safely hidden away, to avoid dark, nasty-looking streets and to not walk around with your head up your arse obviously apply.

In addition, in my experience in Russia you have more to fear from the police than you do from the mysterious "mafia" of whom I've hardly ever seen hide or hair. Many of Russia's police (or militsiya as they're known) make money on the side from shaking down unsuspecting tourists, foreigners or defenceless Russians. The good (though slightly unnerving) news is that I suspect by 2018 they will be under strict instructions from the government to cut down on this kind of activity - or else.

What are Russians like generally? Aren't they a bit unwelcoming?
Far be it for me to turn this Q&A article into an advert for Russia, Russians are generally a lovely bunch to be around. The older generation can often be a little reticent - a legacy, I suspect, from the years of Communist rule. Scratch away at the surface, however, and you'll find them to be among the most hospitable people in Europe, if not the world.

The younger generation, particularly in Moscow and St Petersburg, are drifting towards Western social mores. They are very often elegant, eloquent - in English as well as their native language - and make for excellent conversation- and drinking-partners...Plus they know a hell of a lot about English football, so you won't be short of conversation topics.

What about the racism?
Ah, now that's an issue Russia certainly needs to grapple with. Until I saw this rather suspicious-looking photograph posted on Zenit St Petersburg's official website, I had never seen a black person in the stands at a football match in Russia. I'm still not convinced that's not just a nifty bit of photoshopping. It's true, Russia is not necessarily the most welcoming place for black people.

I'd say that's a consequence not of pure malevolence, but of ignorance. For so many years Russians have had very little contact with black people, which by no means excuses racism in the country's stadiums, but at least explains it. And, as Marc Bennetts points out in a nice piece for Sabotage Times, the 2018 World Cup could prove the "short, sharp shock" needed to drive racism out of Russian football.

That's the optimistic way of looking at things. It's also the lazy way of looking at it. I'm not black, so I won't have to put that to the test. What I would say is this - in Russia in the year 2010 I wouldn't want to walk the streets alone as a black man. That is enough to convince me that this could be one of the major problems lying in wait eight years from now.


Anonymous said...

Thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Nice one - v interesting about three of Russia's nine time zones coming into play for World Cup 2018. Luke

Neil Smythe said...

I was at uni in St Petersburg in 93 and roomed with a Sikh guy from Birmingham and the looks he got out and about were shocking. I had hoped that things would have changed since then but It appears not. As you say though 8 years is a long time over there and I think it'll be a fascinating tournament. I'm already dusting down my text books.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant piece. Balanced and highly informative. Thank you very much. Do they need to build any new stadiums or is the infrastructure already in place?


James Appell said...

Thanks Jonathan!

Other than Lokomotiv Stadium and Luzhniki in Moscow there isn't a single stadium in the Russian bid which won't see substantial reconstruction.

Work is already being done on a third Moscow stadium for CSKA, and will start on a fourth (Dinamo) imminently. There is now a strong possibility that a fifth (Spartak) will be built.

The new stadium in Sochi will be built for the Winter Olympics in 2014.

St Petersburg's new stadium is also in the pipeline, along with Kazan's - the latter opening for the 2013 Universiade.

The rest of the stadiums are all to be constructed anew. There's still a lot of work to be done, but I have no doubt they'll pull it off.

Anonymous said...

Thoroughly interesting read. Although England wont be hosting the World Cup, I can see myself venturing out to Russia in 8 years time to see some of this one.


Jude Ellery said...

Good read, this, especially the bit about racism - that's the reason I thought they might not get it, but apart from this I actually think a World Cup in Russia will be great.

karllusbec said...

Great article!
Racism in football is a strong concern in Russian Football. Peter Odemwingie example points out the long way Russia has to overcome and take significant measures against this.

Cool blog! Keep on the good work!

Anonymous said...

I travel regularly to Russia with work, to Kazan, Samara, Moscow, St Petersburg and other cities from time to time. Whilst I'd broadly agree with a lot of what you have said I'd like to say that the train infrastructure will need significant work to bring it towards a decent standard for the world cup. Like many of the things I see in Russia the railways have had little investment since the end of the Soviet era and the system is antiquated to say the least.

The flights around Russia are normally brilliant. Aeroflot, S7 and Transaero are excellent airlines although the three tier system where you get the very cheapest seats right at the back of the plane can make things feel a little cramped, but for the price it is good value. I'd just be careful with baggage, excess bagagge charges seem to be automatic on Russian airlines in my experience. Without wanting to reinforce a stereotype I have also seen no end of people, normally middle aged men, absolutely hammered on planes particularly late in the evening or at night. It is apparently socially acceptable to get stggering drunk and fall about the plane on the overnight to Irkutsk.

I'd compeletely agree with the comments about Russian people, once you get beyond the stoic exterior the people are warm and wonderful. Certainly in big cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg people are happy to assist travellers in my experience in a way I've never seen in say London. I think the Russians will puht on an excellent World Cup and whilst the bidding process might be open to criticism I think it was a better choice than England overall.

Post a Comment

Always glad to hear your thoughts. Be nice now! James