2018 FIFA World Cup: Several arenas risk becoming white elephants

Several of the 12 stadiums look set to remain largely empty after the teams have left Russia and the 2018 FIFA World Cup is over.

football Updated: May 28, 2018 20:46 IST
Associated Press
Associated Press
Associated Press, Volgograd
2018 FIFA World Cup,2018 FIFA World Cup stadiums,Baltika Kaliningrad
An interior view shows the Volgograd Arena stadium, which will host matches of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.(REUTERS)

Russia looks set to pack fans into the stadiums for the World Cup. But what happens then?

Several of the 12 stadiums look set to remain largely empty after the teams have left Russia and the tournament is over.

It’s a problem both for Russia — whose $10.8 billion World Cup price tag could be inflated by loss-making arenas — and for FIFA, which has a history of leaving host nations lumbered with under-used stadiums, so-called white elephants.

Club team Rotor Volgograd will occupy a new 45,000-seat World Cup stadium despite averaging home crowds of just 3,800 this season, while Baltika Kaliningrad will inherit a 35,000-seat arena with average crowds of 6,100. Sochi has a 48,000-seat stadium but no professional team.

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Older fans in Volgograd remember Rotor knocking Manchester United out of the UEFA Cup in 1995, but the club last played top-flight football in 2004 and has longstanding financial problems. It’s facing relegation to the Second Division South — Russia’s lowest professional level.

Fans say that if Rotor is to rise again it’ll need government money to maintain the stadium and sign star players.

“When we played against Manchester and Nantes, I was at those games and it’s something you can’t express, those golden times,” longtime supporter Nikolai Seleznyov told The Associated Press.

Rotor could pack arenas “if there’s success for the team,” he added. “It all depends on the authorities here in Volgograd, and whether they help. If they don’t, it can’t work.”

Volgograd mayor Andrei Kosolapov is hunting for a sponsor for Rotor. In Russian soccer, that often means the regional government, or else a state-owned company prepared to tolerate heavy losses. Russian billionaires typically prefer investing in glamorous foreign clubs like Chelsea, Arsenal or Monaco. “I hope that we’ll resolve some issues with investors in the near future,” Kosolapov said last week.

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Russians are keen to see World Cup games and lead the world on ticket sales. But few go to see local clubs play.

In a country of 144 million people, the average Russian Premier League attendance this season rose to 13,971, the highest in two decades but still far below Europe’s top leagues. The second tier averaged just 2,552.

World Cup organizers hope new stadiums will attract fans turned off by old, crumbling facilities. “Test games” at the new stadiums had large crowds, though spectators were often let in for free.

“A new stadium instantly attracts more people to watch football,” World Cup organizing committee CEO Alexei Sorokin told the AP last month, but admitted the government may have to subsidize under-used arenas.

“It could be at first, and there is nothing wrong with that, that the federal budget will help stabilize the operating situation of the stadium,” he said. “I think when the situation rolls on, they will be well on their feet.”

Various World Cup stadiums will cost between 200 million and 400 million rubles ($3.2 million to $6.4 million) a year each in maintenance, regional officials have estimated.

The new-stadium buzz may not last forever.

Twelve stadia across 11 cities will play host to 64 matches at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. Moscow, with two of its biggest grounds – Luzhniki Stadium and the Otkritie Arena – will play host to 12 matches, including the opener on June 14 and the final, scheduled on July 15
Stadium capacity |
Stadium cost (approximate)
Krestovsky Stadium
68,134 ;
Year of opening: 2017
Key events in the past: 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup
Distance from airport: 45km from Pulkovo Airport
Places of interest: Palace Square, Sir Isaac’s Square, Hermitage Museum, Russian Museum.
Fisht Olympic Stadium
47,659 ;
Year of opening: 2013
Key events in the past: 2014 Winter Olympics, 2014 Winter Paralympics, 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup
Distance from airport: 10km from Sochi airport
Places of interest: Sochi’s quay, Mount Akhun, Krasnaya Polyana mountain cluster, Agura waterfalls.
Volgograd Arena
45,568 ;
Year of opening: 2018
Key events in the past: None
Distance from airport: 21km from Mezhdunarodnyy Aeroport.
Places of interest: Motherland statue, Mamayev hill monuments, Stalingrad war memorial, The Eternal Flame.
Kazan Arena
45,379 ;
Year of opening: 2013
Key events in the past: 2017 Confederations Cup, 2013 Summer Universiade, 2015 World Aquatics Championships
Distance from airport: 30km from Kazan airport.
Places of interest: Kazan Kremlin, Kazanka river banks, Tatarstan national museum.
Stadium 1
Luzhniki Stadium
81,000 ;
Year of opening: 1956
Key events in the past: 1973 Summer Universiade, 1980 Summer Olympics, 1999 UEFA Cup final, 2008 UEFA Champions League final, 2013 World Championships in Athletics
Distance from airport: 36km from Sheremetyevo International Airport.
Places of interest: Red Square, Gorky Park, Muzeon Park of Arts, Poklonnaya Hill, Tretyakov Gallery, Bolshoi Theatre, Tverskaya Street.
Stadium 2
Otkritie Arena
45,360 ;
Year of opening: 2014
Key events in the past: 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup
Distance from airport: 20km from Sheremetyevo International Airport.
Rostov Arena
45,000 ;
Year of opening: 2018
Key events in the past: None
Distance from airport: 50km from Platov International Airport.
Places of interest: Don river lookout, Surp Khach 18th century church, Alexander Column, Grigory and Aksinya in a boat (sculpture).
Kaliningrad Stadium
35,212 ;
Year of opening: 2018
Key events in the past: None
Distance from airport: 25km from Aeroport Khrabrovo.
Places of interest: Immanuel Kant museum, Mother Russia monument, Battle of Konigsberg memorial, etc.
Central Stadium
35,696 ;
Year of opening: 1957
Key events in the past: 1959 World Allround Speed Skating Championships for Women.
Distance from airport: 22km from Koltsovo airport.
Places of interest: Yekaterinburg war memorial, V. Vysotskiy Museum, Sevastyanov’s House, Weir on river Iset, Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center, Ganina Yama Monastery.
Mordovia Arena
44,442 ;
Year of opening: 2018
Key events in the past: None.
Distance from airport: 5km from Saransk airport.
Places of interest: Family monument, Sovetskaya Square, Cathedral of Saint Righteous Warrior Feodor Ushakov, Mordovian Republican Fine Arts Museum.
Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
44,899 ;
Year of opening: 2018
Key events in the past: None.
Distance from airport: 23km from Strigino Airport.
Places of interest: Chkalov Stairs, the Spit (confluence of Oka and Volga rivers), Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin, Main Fair Building, Nizhny Novgorod art gallery.
Cosmos Arena
44,918 ;
Year of opening: 2018
Key events in the past: None.
Distance from airport: 35km from Kurumoch International Airport.
Places of interest: Samara embankment, Chapaev monument, Kubychev Square, Stalin’s bunker, Women for the defence of the motherland in 1941-1945 museum.
Illustration: MOHIT SUNEJA | Graphics: HITESH MATHUR

Rubin Kazan saw attendances soar when it moved into the 45,000-seat Kazan Arena, a World Cup stadium, in 2014. However, they’ve since dropped back and this season the stadium was on average more than three-quarters empty.

That mirrors the situation in Poland, host of the 2012 European Championship, where middle-class fans initially flocked to new stadiums but were turned off by low-quality club games, argues Simon Chadwick, who is professor of sports enterprise at England’s Salford University.

“In Poland, what seem to have happened is it’s tailed off,” said Chadwick, who has taught in Russia. “There’s this misalignment between the hopes of domestic football authorities and the realities of what it means to be a football fan in somewhere like Poland and Russia. That can include anything from the weather ... right through to the quality of the football. In Russia, one or two teams aside, the quality of the football is not great.”

South Africa and Brazil are still struggling to manage World Cup stadiums from 2010 and 2014.

Four cities in Brazil have under-used stadiums like the $550 million Mare Garrincha in Brasilia, which recently hosted a game for 400 spectators. The Rio de Janeiro state government, administrators and local clubs are fighting over who should pay maintenance bills for the Maracana, which hosted the World Cup final in 2014. South Africa spent $1.1 billion on its 2010 World Cup venues, some of which are reportedly losing money.

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Faced with more white-elephant venues from Qatar’s 2022 tournament, FIFA has praised the 2026 bid from the United States, Canada and Mexico for using existing, mostly well attended venues.

Some Russian cities are trying to adapt.

Stadiums in Saransk and Yekaterinburg have large temporary stands which will be removed after the tournament, reducing capacity and costs. The regional minister overseeing Saransk’s preparations, Alexei Merkushkin, said Wednesday he hoped a gym and other commercial ventures would set up at the Mordovia Arena so it breaks even in “two, maximum three years”. No tenants have signed up yet.

The stadium’s post-World Cup capacity of 28,000 is large for a city of 300,000. It’s also 11 times the average crowd in the Russian second tier, where Mordovia will play next season.

Almost all locals welcome Saransk’s new roads built for the tournament but some see the stadium as a burden.

Merkushkin is “the minister for wasting Moscow’s money,” said Pavel, a Saransk resident who didn’t give his surname because he didn’t want to be identified criticizing the government.

After the World Cup, “who’s going to watch all these backyard-level games?”

First Published: May 21, 2018 11:57 IST