This summer’s World Cup is just around the corner, but the same cannot be said for most of the stadiums the participating teams will travel to in Russia.
For the third time in a row, FIFA’s flagship event is being held in one of the world’s biggest countries and the journey times that will be confronted are not just difficult for fans. Players, already dealing with the demands of games every three days after a strenuous season, will have to contend with long spells on the road and in the air.
It is true that all the games will be based in the more populated western part of the biggest country on the planet, but some of the distances between host cities are still mind-bogglingly huge.
To get from the Central Stadium in Yekaterinburg, the most easterly of the World Cup arenas, to the Kaliningrad Stadium, the most westerly, one would have to travel around 2,500km. That is the same as a trip from London to Istanbul.
From Sochi to Saint Petersburg the situation is similar, with teams clocking up almost 2,000km to move between the two.
For most observers, there is a group of four or five favourites to take the title, including Brazil, Germany, France, Spain and perhaps Belgium. Of those teams, it is Brazil that will travel the furthest during the group stages and on a possible run towards the final.
It is more than likely, then, that fatigue will be Brazil’s most significant enemy in their quest to conquer a sixth world title.
All the nations that will be playing in Russia had to choose the location for their training base before the draw was made.
There was, therefore, a balance that needed to be struck between comfortable surroundings and travel times. Brazil’s Director of National teams, Edu Gaspar, part of the Arsenal team that won the Premier League in 2002 and 2004, prioritised the former.
Gaspar and manager Tite opted for the city of Sochi, one of Russia’s most southerly points, because of the quality of facilities on offer.
According to Gaspar, talking on Brazilian television, the Selecao “needs to be in a place where we have well-being. The well-being of the athletes is very important. The game itself, you travel, you play, you come back. And when you come back, you need to be in an agreeable environment.”
Doing little to dispel stereotypes, he continued, saying that the hotel “has a beach in front of it. A private beach.”
Clearly, the sandy shores of the Black Sea were not the only consideration. Tite also requested a hotel within a short walk of the training ground and practice pitches of the highest standard, both of which he will have. But will the decision to be based so far from the majority of the action backfire?
They were hoping to be drawn in one of the groups with a fixture in Sochi, but no such luck was forthcoming. Instead they will travel to Rostov-on-Don, Saint Petersburg and Moscow for their games in Group E.
That will mean covering a total of 7,376km during the first phase, which looks marathon-like when compared with the 4,280km that France will travel or 4,162km for Germany.
If they win their group, as they are expected to, the Brazilians will then have to go to Samara, Kazan and Saint Petersburg once more before a potential final in Moscow. If they get all the way to the last game, they will have notched more miles than anyone else.
In the last World Cup in Brazil, the effects of travel were clear for all to see. Croatia lost 3-1 to Mexico after the long trip to Amazonian capital of Manaus, crashing out of the tournament as a result. Italy and England played each other in the same stadium in their opening match; both lost their subsequent games and went back home before reaching the knockout rounds.
This time round, Brazil’s players are also coming off a long, hard European season. Marcelo, Casemiro and Roberto Firmino have all gone the full distance in the Champions League, the final of which will be played in Kiev on Saturday, 26th May.
Paulinho, the petrol in the Brazilian midfield engine, is far from his physical peak. His move to Barcelona at the end of the Chinese season means that he has not had a real break from football for almost two years. The team relies on his dynamic presence, and his late bursts into the box have been visibly less frequent in recent weeks at club level.
Neymar’s fitness is also in doubt, having just come back from a long injury lay off. Only time will tell if he is firing on all cylinders. Fagner, the Corinthians right-back who will be the most likely replacement for the stricken Dani Alves, is in a similar situation, racing to be ready in time for the first game against Switzerland on 17th June.
Normally Brazil go into the tournament with one of the highest levels of fitness of any participant, a fact that is often overlooked when discussing their historical successes.
This time, playing with the intensity that is required to win games at the highest level all the way through the tournament may prove a difficult task.