By Paul Goble
Given Russian aggression in both Ukraine and Syria, ever more voices are being raised in the West about Russia’s hosting of the 2018 World Cup, with some countries indicating that they may not send teams to the competition and others suggesting that Russia should be stripped of the right to hold this international soccer tournament.
Those calls have attracted the attention of media outlets both in Russia and in the West, a repetition of similar discussions in the lead up to the Sochi Olympiad in 2014. But less attention has been focused on the fact that an increasing number of Russians are asking whether the country, given its current economic difficulties, can in fact afford to be the host.
A World Cup competition is if anything an even greater undertaking that an Olympiad, given the need for developing multiple venues for the same sport, arranging training and practicing areas, and ensuring that there is sufficient infrastructure to support the competitors and fans across the host country for more than a month.
When Moscow was still flush with money from the oil price spike in the first decade of the 21st century, most Russians were enthusiastic about Vladimir Putin’s plan to use the Sochi Olympiad as a marker of their country’s “rising from its knees,” even if they were horrified to learn just how much the Kremlin leader spent on the project.
Now, when the Russian economy is in trouble as a result of the decline in oil prices and the imposition of sanctions, Russians appear to be less happy about the price tag for the 2018 World Cup, especially given increasing evidence of how much the authorities have skimmed off for themselves and how little thought has been given to how these facilities will be used later.
In an important article on the Profile portal today, journalist Ivan Dmitriyenko surveys the situation, highlighting the problems that the Kremlin faces in getting ready for yet another “gigantist” publicity stunt, one that may not even happen if the West decides Russia should not be allowed to host it (profile.ru/economics/item/111157-stadiony-odnorazovogo-ispolzovaniya).
The venues for the World Cup are in many cases unfinished, he reports, and aren’t even scheduled to be completed before the end of next year. But “the less time there is remaining, the more money those involved will demand from the state in order to finish construction on time,” the journalist says.
“And although the list [and size] of stadiums and training facilities has frequently been cut” over the last several years, he continues, their construction already is “becoming a serious burden for the budget, and in the future, it will become an unbearable one for many regions” not only before 2018 but after as well.
So far, Moscow has been willing to throw more money at the problem, even as it has cut back in the grandiosity of its plans. But it has not figured out what these sites will be used for and whether they can be supported after 2018 or been able to keep contractors from holding the government hostage over one of Putin’s propaganda efforts.
The Russian government has been cutting back on the size of some of the stadiums – the ones in Kaliningrad and Yekaterinburg will now seat 35,000 and not 45,000 fans as originally planned – as well as the number of training fields. Initially, there were supposed to be 113, but now only 96 are planned. And construction of many has not even begun.
Moscow officials have been more optimistic about the future uses of such facilities because such stadiums can be employed for more than just soccer matches, unlike many of the venues in Sochi which by their very nature are limited to a particular kind of sport, such as tobogganing.
But recently, some experts have been questioning how true that is. Maksim Belitsky, the head of the International School of Sports Management in Moscow, says that the experience of European countries is that “more than 70 percent of the revenue” from stadiums comes from their main intended use – soccer – rather than for anything else.
Thus, he suggests, Russia’s regions and cities may be left with facilities they will be expected to maintain even though many of them are already on the edge of bankruptcy. The situation will be especially dire for those cities that do not have top-ranking football clubs, he says. And if the economic crisis continues, fewer fans will be filling the seats of these places.