Russian roulette

Away from the staged celebrations, Sasha Goryunov assesses the social and political consequences for the 2018 World Cup hosts 

As Russian football’s domestic season trundled towards its conclusion at the end of November, a collective feeling of ennui enveloped commentators and supporters across the country. St Petersburg, where Zenit fans celebrated the club’s second post-Soviet title, was perhaps the only exception. In Europe, as expected, Russia’s clubs gravitated towards the knockout stages of the Europa League. However, the decision taken in Zürich on December 2 gave Russia and its football a new sense of purpose. Or so it seems.

The initial reaction to FIFA awarding the 2018 World Cup to Russia was euphoric. There remained a few voices urging caution and pointing out that the country needs to move forward via decent living conditions for its citizens, improved health care and education systems for the masses rather than a football tournament.

These calls were drowned out by those proclaiming a great political victory against the old football order, an opportunity to show Russia off to the world, opening up the introverted inhabitants of a former superpower which is still trying to recover from its loss of status since 1991. And, hey, why do we always have to be those on the outside looking in? Let them come to us for a change.

Staging the tournament will be expensive. Estimates range from $20 to $50 billion (£13-£32bn), with at least $10bn coming from the state. As with any venture of such scale, it is to be expected that a sizeable chunk of financing will not reach its intended destination, none of the budgets will be adhered to and the carve-up of the contracts will be heroic.

Yet the government’s social responsibility is so low, that provided some long-term improvements, such as new roads and rail networks, are implemented, many will consider the tournament to be of benefit. Without a World Cup much of this work would never take place. As if to prove the point, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin signed off a new high-speed rail link shortly after the decision.

Staging a World Cup does seem to give the host country a collective lift. Not financial, of course. In Why England Lose Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski observe that the locals are “happier” for several years after staging the tournament. I am struggling to see how this will cure the chronic social problems that Russia has experienced over recent decades. A tragic reminder came only a few days after the vote.

On December 6 a Spartak fan was killed in Moscow during an altercation with a group of migrants from the North Caucasus. The local police’s handling of the aftermath sparked a fan protest against corruption in the force, a firework-induced stoppage at a European match in Slovakia and a demonstration that degenerated into a race riot in Moscow. Violence, corruption and racism all rolled into one. Putin met with 40 representatives of clubs’ fan groups two weeks after the killing, warning against extremism and calling for vigilance, given that “they” are doing their best to take the Olympic tournament and the World Cup away from “us”.

And finally, the football. There is talk of the international attention that will be afforded Russian football now and that this should mean more transparency, fewer fixed matches, better standards of refereeing and better crowd control. Spartak will finally get their own ground. The work on Zenit’s stadium can resume now. The provincial host cities will get 25-30,000-capacity stadiums, temporarily expanding to around 45,000 for 2018. But what are the odds that teams from the host cities of Sochi, Saransk, Yaroslavl and Kaliningrad won’t be “helped” up to the top flight at the expense of clubs from Perm, Tomsk, Makhachkala and Nalchik?

On December 21 an announcement on the Amkar Perm website stated that with debts of $3.5m, the club can no longer carry on in the top flight and will be dropping down a division. Contrast this with the experience of Krylia Sovetov from the host city of Samara who were bailed out less than a year ago over debts of $80m. As money is poured into the host cities, the rest are likely to be neglected and lower-division football is likely to deteriorate into a farce.

The Russians have eight years to prepare. Top-level football in the country will be given a boost and there will be other benefits. Every step of the way, however, there is a caveat. In Russia there is no other way.

From WSC 288 February 2011