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.