Rob Dillon1 Comment

GREAT WHITE ELEPHANTS AND MORDOVIA'S RACE TO THE TOP

Rob Dillon1 Comment

Pre-empting the aftermath of the 2018 World Cup....

On 2 December 2010, the hosts of both the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cups were announced to a great deal of surprise form the footballing world. Whilst football's governing body's decision to award the later edition to Qatar bore the brunt of the criticism, there were also mumbles of discontent regarding the Russian victory, with crucial issues such as distance between cities, visa problems and the eternal spectre of racism looming large over the first World Cup to be held both in Eastern Europe and over two continents.

In a short space of time, the Russian government moved to distance themselves from the negativity, announcing a programme of visa waivers for the duration of the tournament, subsidised rail travel on a much-improved transport network, and the placing of first round groups into geographical zones to minimise travel. The issue of racism in Russia is one which has rightly had many an article written about it, with concerns about Russian society as a whole added to by the growing hooligan culture in Moscow and St Petersburg, but there has been little concrete to attempt to solve the problem.

However, a further opposition to the bid, and one which has been somewhat lost in the wider social issues, is the building and maintenance of the World Cup venues. Recently, Moscow planners baulked at the estimated costs of renovating and expanding the Luzhniki national stadium to its proposed 89,000 capacity, with suggestions being that it may be more financially viable to build a new stadium or make smaller adjustments to the current 78,000-seater arena. With Moscow's grandest stadium the proposed venue of one of world sport's biggest events, the authorities' reluctance to spend the necessary funds on improvements is a worrying one.

So too, is the list of suggested locations for the World Cup stadia, many of which are already under construction, with some fantastic artistic impressions available online to marvel at. Whilst there are some locations which make perfect sense and have both a sporting pedigree and future occupant at the ready – Moscow, St Petersburg, Kazan and Krasnodar – there are an equal if not greater number of cities in which it is difficult to see the need for a 40,000 seater stadium given their current level of sporting success. Whilst egalitarian purists may argue that the whole point of such a wide-reaching programme is to provide facilities for those previously unable to reach the top, the Russian bid has gone a step further. Kaliningrad, Volgograd, Ekaterinburg and Saransk all currently lack top-flight football, whilst Rostov, Nizhny Novgorod and Samara's sides are all in danger of relegation from the Premier League. Sochi, whilst necessarily constructing a stadium for the 2014 Winter Olympics, does not have a competitive team at all following the demise of Zhemchuzhina back in July.

The Russian Football Union has recognised this clear disparity between the need to build stadia and the demand for them in a post-World Cup setting, as have regional governments. The adopted solution has varied in degree across the country, however the basic principle remains – heavy investment from local authorities in these lower league teams, in the hope of growing a fanbase through footballing success so that the new hyper-modern venues are not left to stand abandoned like a Soviet Ferris wheel.

Nowhere is this principle being appeared more obviously than in Saransk. The city, almost 400 miles south-east of Moscow, is famous for very little other than being the capital of the Republic of Mordovia, whose main cultural export thus far has been its state puppet theatre. By no means is it a sporting giant, and the track record of its football team, the imaginatively named Mordovia Saransk, is much of the same – in the Soviet era the club never broke out of the third tier, and despite couple of impressive runs to the last eight of the Russian Cup, they have spent more time in the regional leagues than out of them since the USSR's collapse.

This is in spite of the club winning a remarkable three straight titles in the Second Division's Volga zone from 2000-2002. Financial restraints on the team meant that on the first two occasions the club either turned down their well-earned promotion or were denied an official license, going up at the third time of asking only to be relegated in their second First Division season. However, in 2009 Mordovia roared to their regional title by 20 points, and finished their comeback season in the second tier in a very respectable 6th place. This season, they sit level on points with fallen giants Alania Vladikavkaz atop the First Division, and look certain to finish with a play-off spot as the bare minimum.

The reason behind their success is purely financial, the team from one of Russia's most non-descript cities the beneficiaries of a largely political decision to gift Saransk a World Cup stadium as part of wider Mordovian celebrations in 2012. As a result, the team have been able to offer large contracts to key squad members, and attract players from more established First Division sides in their bid for promotion. If not this season, it is surely only a matter of time before their government backing results in top flight football.

Whilst other teams lower than the league are embarking on similar programmes by nature, if not by scale, fans are both excited by the prospect of a rapid rise and frightened of the inevitable end of the cash, the consequences of which could see yet more teams withdraw from the league and have to start again from the very bottom when their false position is exposed. Rotor Volgograd fans in particular are advocating a more cautious approach - having seen their team go through several name changes and financial problems in the last two decades, a lower league status with a sustainable base is preferable to a higher one supported only be temporary funding.

Of greater immediate importance to the Russian footballing authorities however, is that the problem of the World Cup stadia does not appear to be solved with these methods. With Mordovia at their highest ever league position, their average home gate is still only around 4,800, whilst the new stadium will be reduced to 'just' 30,000 after the World Cup. Yaroslavl's Shinnik stadium is to be turned into a 44,000 seater – ten times its residents' regular attendance – whilst neither Nizhny Novgorod side can even dream of filling an area of that size. The problem of littering European Russia with oversized and unnecessary sports venues cannot be solved simply by throwing money at it, and unless the Russian Football Union can begin to drum up genuine support from regional sides ahead of the World Cup, the teams hit by the maintenance bills in its aftermath may well be right to blame them for their future financial troubles.

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