Russia's stadiums face a sad reality when the World Cup finishes


Back in the early 1960s, Frank Sinatra was big pals with John F Kennedy. And he wanted to impress his pal, too.

Not long after Kennedy was elected president, he was invited to Palm Springs for a pleasant boys’ weekend at Casa Frank, but whereas most of us might prepare for guests by making sure the spare room was hoovered and we had a few decent bottles in, Sinatra built a series of new guesthouses in his grounds, installed 25 new phone lines and had a helipad put in, specifically for Kennedy.

Sinatra was therefore significantly unimpressed when Kennedy cancelled his trip, on the basis that he was already getting fairly serious heat because of rumoured links with the mafia, and therefore a weekend on the pop with someone like Sinatra might be bad news, PR-wise. What the hell was he going to do with that helipad now?

That story sprung to mind a few times while visiting some of the vast gleaming footballing guesthouses in Russia over the past couple of weeks. The World Cup is being held in 12 stadia across 11 cities - seven of which didn't exist before 2017, another four were built in the last five years and the Luzhniki in Moscow was thoroughly renovated between 2013-2017. So that's essentially 11 new grounds, and one that might as well be.

Not all of them were built with the World Cup specifically in mind - the Olympic Stadium in Sochi for example, or the Kazan Arena which in addition to football has, oddly, hosted the World Aquatics Championships - but it's fair to say that Russia's football infrastructure has been given a solid wash and brush up for the benefit of this summer.

And most of the new grounds are, in different ways, spectacular. The Samara Arena looks (intentionally) like a crashed spaceship, St Petersburg is sensational in almost every possible way (including its cost, a cool €650m Euros, apparently), Sochi is an extraordinary feat of engineering that recalls the Sydney Olympic Stadium, while the Ekaterinburg Arena will be impressive even without its temporary bleachers.

A personal favourite is in Nizhny Novgorod, a place which for a start looks absolutely spectacular from the outside, a ring of columns surrounding the stands themselves, like a slightly less absurdly futuristic version of those plans for a new Stamford Bridge.

Inside, the concourses are roomy, the access seems good and most crucially, none of that is achieved while conceding atmosphere. The stands themselves are pretty close to the pitch, the noise contained so even a relatively low tier game - Costa Rica vs Switzerland - buzzed. You wonder why nobody has thought of it before, the difference of course being that Russia have the money, the imperative and what we'll delicately call the "political will" to construct stadia like this.


Which is all very well, but most of these places will host no more than four games this summer, and what then? Five of the brand new grounds will host second tier clubs last season, which includes Sochi, new home to the relocating FC Dynamo of St Petersburg.

In 2016/17 the best attended club in that second tier attracted an average attendance of a little over 5,000. Half the league didn't manage more than 2,000. Only two of the World Cup grounds have a capacity lower than 40,000, none of them are smaller than 33,000.


Further than that, it's a sweeping generalisation but people do not really seem to care about domestic football in Russia. Or at least don't care enough to actually watch it. The average attendance in the Premier League last season was 13,956 and not long ago former national team boss Leonid Slutsky claimed it simply wasn't a football country.

In short, unless this World Cup inspires a mass enthusiasm for the game barely seen before, Russia will have an awful lot of very echoey football games next season. Forward planning was never really the motivation behind Russia pushing for this tournament, but just imagine the hand-wringing if this was about to happen in the UK.

Assorted cities around the country have essentially been left with a selection of superfluous helipads. Sinatra apparently reacted to the news that Kennedy was going to stay with Bing Crosby instead by taking a sledgehammer to his property. Who knows, eventually that might happen in Russia too.

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