In the weeks immediately preceding the beginning of any World Cup, after the groups are drawn, match tickets acquired, flights booked, squads finalised, jerseys bought and stadiums primed; attention is diverted temporarily, and inevitably all eyes are fixed firmly in the direction of the hosts. This is even more true with regards to World Cup 2018, when the greatest show on earth arrives in Russia.
The fallout from the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, the Russian annexation of Crimea, the alleged Russian involvement in the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in 2014, added to the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 American election, added to the more recent alleged Russian poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, added to the even more recent faking of the death of Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko in Kiev, have all, as Ken Early puts it, “inflamed the suspicion towards everything Russian”. With Russia using the World Cup as a means to showcase themselves as well as the football, Miguel Delaney has forewarned that “sport and politics – or, at the very least, football and politics – will have never quite mixed like this – on a scale like this”.
Given all the speculation, when myself and a friend landed in Saint Petersburg on June 2, twelve days before the tournament’s opening match, we were not exactly sure of what to expect. The awareness that we would not be joined by any fellow Irish men or women for the duration of our stay did little to alleviate our apprehension. We contented ourselves through immersion in the Russian culture and language, and a desire to soak up as much of the World Cup atmosphere as possible. It was to our surprise therefore, that we discovered that preparations within the city appeared to be unusually, yet decidedly low-key.
There are certainly some indicators that the beautiful game is coming to town. At the very centre of the city, World Cup banners flutter in the wind across Palace Bridge. Streetlights and lamp-posts tower with greetings of ‘Welcome’ or the equivalent ‘Добро Пожаловать’. There is no shortage of merchandise, with shops ranging from sports stores to bookstores selling mugs, caps, t-shirts, notebooks and whatever else you’re having yourself, each bearing the World Cup logo. The city’s public buses are bedecked in advertisements reminding us of the coming festival of fun. The city’s Fan Fest is located in Konyushennaya Square, adjacent to the iconic Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood. With a capacity of 15,000, there is sure to be a vivacious atmosphere there come match-day. Meanwhile, Zabivaka, the official tournament mascot, can be spotted around various landmarks all around the city, with young and old posing for photos with the jolly wolf in visors. No, he’s not a bear.
In spite of all this, we were both in agreement that there was a spark missing, as though there should have been a greater sense of excitement bubbling beneath the surface of the Neva, threatening to overflow at any moment. In the hopes of encountering a genuine bout of World Cup fever, we took a trip to Krestovsky Stadium, situated in Krestovsky Island in the North-West of the city.
The gleaming new stadium was purpose-built for the tournament, and will host seven games in total, including a semi-final. An original timeline indicated that construction would be finished by December 2008. The freshly cut grass was graced for the first time in April 2017. As of May last year, the stadium was 548% over its budget. With the ultimate cost eventually running to $1.1 billion, it is one the most expensive stadiums ever built. What is there to show for the exorbitant expense? It is undoubtedly a stunning display of architecture, and a fitting theatre for the stars of today’s culture to perform on the periphery of a city defined by its unique history and culture. Having emerged out of the underground metro, there is an immediate beautiful walkway leading directly to the stadium front, flanked by a public park on the left and a lively theme park on the right. Soon, the sick feeling in stomachs and quickening of heartbeats will also emanate from inside the stadium as the thrill-seekers go through their own rollercoaster of emotions.
With the big kick-off edging ever closer, one might expect that excitement levels would be at an all-time high. The first match will be contested between the hosts and Saudi Arabia. The latest set of FIFA world rankings saw Russia drop to 70th place, meaning that they are now the lowest ranked team in the tournament they will be hosting. They are three places below their first opponents, Saudi Arabia, who are expected to finish bottom of Group A. With Uruguay known for producing at major tournaments, one would imagine they will top the group. That leaves Russia in a probable battle for second place, with the likely-group deciding game taking place between Russia and Egypt in Saint Petersburg on June 19. After limply crashing out of Euro 2012 at the group stage, talisman Andrey Arshavin justified the premature exit by stating that the fans’ expectations were too high. A recent state-funded poll revealed that only 20% of Russians expect their team to make it to the last 16. It appears that the Russian fans may have taken his comments to heart. And perhaps even more tellingly, we have not seen one Russian jersey worn by anyone in the whole of Saint Petersburg.
And so, with such a lack of optimism among the hosts, the onus may fall on the visitors from the far-flung corners of the globe to bring the party atmosphere. We can count on the Brazilians and Argentinians to bring some South-American flair to Saint Petersburg at least, and with fans from the different nations beginning to arrive, very soon we won’t be the only foreigners in town. Moscow is the undeniable focal point of the country, though it will take a combined and cohesive effort from all 12 host cities to ensure that the tournament is viewed as a success.
Having gone a week without mobile data, high on our list of priorities was the acquisition of a Russian sim card to ensure we wouldn’t miss any of the latest news coming from the various team camps. Having negotiated a transaction through broken Russian, the young man behind the counter opted for Google Translate on his phone to enable ease of communication. With just the faintest hint of a smile on his otherwise taciturn face, he gestured and prompted us to read his translation: “Stay safe on the streets and good luck with the football:)”.We didn’t have the heart to break the bad news to him. We thanked him and returned his message of good luck. He replied with a big smile that carried with it an unmistakable sense of hope, or perhaps it was even confidence. Despite the painful reminder of Ireland’s absence, it gave us some solace to know that not everyone had lost hope, that others shared our enthusiasm for what was to come; for the moment when the whistle will blow and the talking will stop and the football will begin.