Skip to main content

Russia faces challenges before hosting World Cup in 2018

Whatever the inadequacies of the decision-making process -- and when bids have been presented over a number of months, there is something self-evidently wrong when lobbyists are still hoping to persuade members of the executive committee to vote for them at 5 a.m. on the day of the vote -- there is one crucial element in FIFA's philosophy that is counterintuitive, but gives a broad-brush justification to taking the World Cup to Russia and Qatar (in 2022). FIFA, and Sepp Blatter in particular, is obsessed with "legacy," with taking the World Cup to new regions. What that means in practice is often white-elephant stadiums and hosts whose desperation for the investment and interest a World Cup brings makes them particularly accommodating to FIFA's demands, but in theory it sounds fine, even noble -- particularly in the context of Africa.

What it means in theory, though, is that having the immediate capacity to host the tournament is itself a reason why a country will not be chosen. England could host a fine World Cup tomorrow -- which makes it a useful contingency should anything go wrong -- and although it brings excellent stadiums, passionate fans and reasonable infrastructure, it does not bring a sense of gratitude.

The Luzhniki in Moscow is already one of the world's finest stadiums, and a 60,000-seater will open in St. Petersburg next year. That aside, though, Russia needs investment in sporting infrastructure, particularly as Vladimir Putin pursues a general policy of reaching out to the regions. The increasing power of the provincial cities is reflected in the fact that, until four years ago, the Russian league title had left Moscow only once; since then it has been shared between Zenit St. Petersburg and Rubin Kazan. The World Cup will take visitors to cities as widespread as Yekaterinburg, Krasnodar, Kaliningrad and Nizhny Novgorod.

The focus on legacy also means that English fans who protest that it must be England's "turn" -- they argue that the likes of Germany, Italy and France have hosted the World Cup twice, while it will be at least 60 years before England, the 1966 host, gets the tournament again -- are beating the wrong drum. Eastern Europe has a fine footballing tradition and has produced 11 World Cup semifinalists, but it has never hosted the tournament. If it is anybody's turn, it is that of the one country in Eastern Europe capable of hosting the World Cup -- Russia.

It's difficult to quantify how serious Russian football's problem with racism is. There have been a number of incidents over the past few years, the most notable recent case being Lokomotiv Moscow fans thanking West Brom for signing the Nigeria striker Peter Odemwingie (who was born in Uzbekistan of a Russian Tatar mother and a Nigerian father) with a banner decorated with bananas.

The head of Russia's bid, Vitaly Mutko (a man facing a corruption inquiry of his own after charging for 97 breakfasts while on a three-week trip to Canada), insists that racism is limited. It's very easy for those in Western countries with a lengthy history of immigration to point the finger, and it would be wrong to say that Russia is endemically racist. Apart from anything else, the vastness of Russia means it is ethnically diverse, while the presence of increasing numbers of black African and Brazilian players at a number of clubs is helping -- as it did in Britain -- to break down prejudice. Of course, a handful of extremists can skew the perception, and one banner, disgraceful as it was, shouldn't be taken as representative of all Lokomotiv fans, never mind all Russian fans.

Yet for all that, one incident raises serious doubts. When Dick Advocaat, the coach of the Russia national team, was coach of Zenit St. Petersburg, he admitted he wouldn't dare sign a black player because he wouldn't be able to guarantee his safety. If the far right is that threatening in St. Petersburg, then there must be serious questions about how local crowds will react to black players and, probably more troublingly, about the safety of black fans. Perhaps the World Cup will inspire a greater culture of tolerance and understanding, but it seems a back-to-front way of approaching the issue.

Journalists, of course, have different requirements to fans, but in terms of what makes a tournament fun, there is some overlap. The tournaments I've most enjoyed covering have been the Asian Cup in Lebanon in 2000 and the European Championship in Portugal in 2004, largely because the size of the country made it manageable. It was possible to cover a lot of games and training camps without spending hours traveling and, as a result, missing matches. I spent much of the last World Cup shivering in a guest house in Rustenburg, South Africa, watching games on television because there wasn't time to travel to them. Plus, of course, there is the cost. Brazil in 2014 is going to be even worse, and Russia will be worse again.

In South Africa, England was based in Rustenburg, where it played its first game, then had group games on the south coast in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, before returning to the veld for the second-round defeat to Germany in Bloemfontein. Had England kept winning, it would have returned to Cape Town for the quarterfinal, before a semifinal in Durban and the final in Johannesburg. In 2014, FIFA will move back to the system abandoned in 1998 whereby a group will be based in two neighboring cities, which should help reduce travel, while in Russia the host cities have been split into four regional clusters.

That is encouraging, and Russia, unlike South Africa and Brazil, at least has a functioning rail network -- on which fans with tickets have been promised free travel -- but even within the clusters, journeys are vast. Kazan to Saransk, for instance, would take about nine hours by train.

Moscow and St. Petersburg have excellent light rail systems, which should help alleviate the problems caused by the congested roads in both cities. Both equally are well-served by hotels, although cost tends to be high. In the smaller cities, though, hotel infrastructure is clearly lacking, and significant work will have to be done to improve airports. The timing was unfortunate, but the air crash at Domodedovo airport that killed two and injured 83 last week highlighted concerns about safety on internal flights -- particularly given that the plane in question had carried the Belgian national team three weeks earlier.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.