The World Cup in Russia took place at twelve beautiful and modern stadiums which wowed visiting supporters.
However, history shows that, after major tournaments, decision-makers tend to have trouble deciding how the venues should be used going forward.
FIFA wants to maximise football’s reach by holding tournaments in countries where it is not the most popular sport. And while interest in football does generally increase in the immediate aftermath of a World Cup, it is often not sufficient to ensure that the stadiums are constantly filled, or even that clubs will be able to play at them. Many of the fans who follow their national sides during World Cups quickly tire of football once the new season begins.
This is unlikely to be an issue for several of Russia’s venues.
The country’s largest arena, Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, will continue to be used for national team matches and key games at major tournaments. Many English fans have fond memories of the ground where Manchester United beat Chelsea to lift the Champions League in 2008.
Former Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko previously announced that Luzhniki would be a home base for Russia’s national team, much like Wembley is for England.
“We have agreed with the Moscow mayor’s office to establish a base for the national side at Luzhniki. The necessary work will be done after the World Cup. The Russian Football Union’s HQ may also be moved to the premises. It would be great if Luzhniki became the centre of Russian football,” the official said.
A similar fate awaits Sochi’s Fisht Stadium, which holds over 44,000 people. It is a suitable venue for the national team, but will also be used as the home ground for newly-formed second division side FC Sochi.
Two more stadiums in Russia’s largest cities – Moscow’s Otkritie Arena and St Petersburg’s Krestovsky Stadium – will also see regular use as the home grounds of Russian Premier League giants Spartak Moscow and Zenit. Both clubs have sizeable fan bases which will make full use of the stadiums’ large capacities.
However, other stadiums face uncertainty. Clubs further down in the Russian Premier League pecking order attract far fewer fans, not to mention those in the lower divisions. In addition, the idea of moving to a new and expensive stadium is beyond the reach of many clubs.
It was recently reported that Premier League club FC Rostov may not be able to move to the newly built Rostov Arena – which is kitted out in the club’s colours – because the cost of renting the ground is simply far too high.
The club’s press service later refuted these reports, saying that the team would indeed be making use of its new home. “As it stands, FC Rostov will play its home games at the Rostov Arena. The opening game of the season against Akhmat Grozny is scheduled for 28 July, and we will be providing all necessary support to our club,” local sporting official Samvel Areklyan was quoted as saying.
Of course, for Rostov, as for any club, moving to a larger and more modern stadium is a step forward in terms of fan perception and image, but the financial issue remains problematic. It has become clear that clubs cannot count on the grounds paying for themselves.
For example, Kaliningrad local official Georgy Dykhanov recently voiced the opinion that the city’s new venue, which will host local side Baltika, will not be profitable for the foreseeable future. “It will not be possible to talk about the stadium paying for itself for the next 20 years at least. From a financial point of view sporting facilities like this are never profitable,” he told Russian paper Sovetsky Sport.
According to Baltika, like Rostov, may have trouble paying the rent on the stadium without help from the state. “We have not yet been informed of the rent costs. We are extremely worried about this. The figures which have been voiced, while unofficial, are not feasible for us,” the club’s director Teymuraz Lepsaya said. The cost per match is rumoured to be around £24,000 ($31,000).
Дождь смыл насыпь у стадиона "Волгоград Арена". Тонны песка выплыли на Нулевую Продольную магистраль pic.twitter.com/B87FCPbnIj— Виталий С. (@vits2014) July 15, 2018
Other stadiums are facing issues due to poor build quality. On the day of the World Cup final a video was shared on Twitter showing flooding outside the Volgograd Arena after heavy rain. The stadium is reported to have taken damage as a result.
So the ground has essentially become unfit for use less than a week after the end of the event for which it has built. The Arena, where local team Rotor will play next season, cost the government around £205m ($268m).
This is not the first such case. On 11 July it was reported that the road leading to the Nizhny Novgorod stadium, also built for the World Cup, had been destroyed by rainfall.
This means that even if clubs are able to gather the necessary funds to play at the stadiums, it is far from certain that they will be able to do so in the event of adverse weather conditions.
It’s not all bad, however. Mordovia Saransk opened their 2018-19 campaign against Nizhny Novgorod at the new Saransk Arena in front of 26,000 fans – an unbelievable figure for a second division match.
All that remains is to hope that Russia’s new grounds help to increase interest in football amongst the population and are able to withstand the climate. The alternative – that these beautiful and state-of-the-art arenas remain empty throughout the season – is a depressing prospect.
This is the chief concern at Rubin Kazan, whose Kazan Arena hosted one of the best games at the World Cup – the quarter-final between Brazil and Belgium. Of course, there wasn’t an empty seat in the house for that match, but Rubin’s less-than-spectacular performances in the Premier League are unlikely to draw similar crowds; last season it was common for no more than 3,000 fans to show up to support the team.
The problem of low attendance is not only linked to stadium infrastructure, but to the level of development and popularity of football in Russia. The World Cup is over, and Russia has returned to its footballing reality, where it is not always easy to purchase tickets online or find a parking space near the stadium.
Those responsible for developing the game in the host nation need to remember their duties now that the tournament is over. Only then can these stadiums, which brought the nation together, be prevented from gathering dust.