100 days to FIFA World Cup: how is Russia 2018 taking shape?
From tickets to trouble spots and the football itself, we place under the microscope the issues that will determine the success of this summer’s tournament.
Fifa has provided the usual positive bulletins about uptake, with just under five million having been requested by the end of the January sales window. Just over half of those have come from within Russia; perhaps depressingly, England features outside the top 10 countries for demand, contributing only 57,957 requests to the total. For context the Netherlands, a much smaller country whose side did not qualify for the tournament, made 71,096 requests. This does not, of course, equate to tickets sold and there are still two phases to go. But with international fans’ appetites clearly an issue there will be much focus on making sure local supporters fill the stadiums. In 2014 the average monthly salary in Mordovia, the republic of which Saransk is capital, was £255; it may make Panama v Tunisia, even at prices starting at £16 for Russian citizens in the group stage, something of an extravagance.
The local organising committee is doing its bit to make transport easier by providing fans with free tickets for 728 additional trains between host cities along certain routes and around particular games – although those in a hurry may find faster services available at a cost, particularly on journeys such as Moscow-St Petersburg. Air travel will play a major – and far quicker – part but the extent to which the host cities will be connected to one another remains vague and at present many trips will involve a change in the capital. Of perhaps more concern is the accommodation issue in further-flung cities such as Saransk and Volgograd. These are places that rarely see influxes of foreign visitors and most of those offering lodging have yet to be talked – or legislated – down from offering exorbitant rates that have reached as high as four figures for a night’s stay in a basic, Khrushchev-era apartment. It is a situation that must improve if those fans who make it to these venues are to have a comfortable, safe stay.
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It will, as usual for a World Cup, be all right on the night, although in several cases things have been left late. Fifa will visit the more provincial stadiums – in Volgograd, Ekaterinburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Saransk and Kaliningrad – in the last 10 days of March to assess the venues’ varying degrees of readiness, although it admits the only way to know for sure is by seeing how they get on in test events. Samara’s Cosmos Arena is among a number of stadium projects to have been scaled back as costs and logistics mounted, and is the biggest straggler; it feels a little close to the wire that the first practice game there is not pencilled in until 28 April. Access and surrounding infrastructure are of equal concern; when the beautiful Luzhniki Stadium, which will host the final, hosted Russia’s game with Argentina in November the match passed perfectly but there were two-hour queues to reach a local train station afterwards. The venue will have another crack at things when Brazil visit on 23 March.
The recent violence in Bilbao between supporters of Spartak Moscow and the local team brought Russia’s hooliganism issues back into the spotlight. A policeman died and, even though there is no evidence Spartak’s fans were culpable, it adds up to a troubling picture after the events in Marseille two years ago. There is, though, a sense that things will work differently on home soil. Hooligans have been cracked down on forcibly by Russian security forces and there is an acceptance, among ultras groups spoken to by the Guardian, that this summer will be policed far too heavily for serious steps out of line. The chance of any issues inside, or directly around, the stadiums looks remote and the relatively small number of fans likely to travel independently from countries such as England also reduces the prospect of violence. That is not to rule out any threat though and there are causes for discomfort elsewhere. Issues relating to homophobia and racism have been under the microscope and the anti-discrimination group Fare last year warned gay supporters not to make public displays of affection in Russia. A law, passed in 2013, banning gay “propaganda” remains in place. The former Chelsea and Fulham midfielder Alexey Smertin, who is Russia 2018’s anti-discrimination chief, has said he believes there will be no problems.
This feels like a particularly important tournament for the football side of things – which is one reason why the adoption of VAR, and all its evident flaws, this summer looks like a serious risk. A new generation is growing up in a world where club football holds sway as never before; the news cycle around Russia 2018 has been largely negative and around the corner lie a 2022 edition in Qatar followed by a 48-team format that threatens to test attention spans to the limit. It is crucial, then, that the big names are out in force and that is why Neymar’s recovery from a fractured metatarsal will occupy considerable interest between now and June. That will also be crucial in terms of local interest: evidence at the Confederations Cup suggested the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo is a greater draw in filling Russian stadiums than an ailing and largely unpopular national team. There is, in fairness, a slightly more positive feel around Stanislav Cherchesov’s side after decent showings against Argentina and Spain, along with a kind group stage draw(Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay); as usual, it would help the feeling around the tournament if they could muster a strong run.