As half-time fare it seemed a little unusual. Boris Yuzefpolsky returned to his seat in the press box of the Central Stadium in Russia’s far-eastern city of Yekaterinburg and eyed the lightly frosted savoury lump handed to him by a stadium official. The words FC URAL were carefully baked into its top.
A freezing 45 minutes later Yuzefpolsky tapped out the headline for his match report. “Gingerbread cookies don’t help as Ural go down 3-1 in their final match at the Central Stadium.” After this, attention turns to the 2018 World Cup and a major remodelling programme for the arena.
There are more numbers in Yuzefpolsky’s report. In three and a half years at the stadium FC Ural Sverdlovskaya Oblast have taken in 54 Russian Premier League matches, attended by 467,000 fans who have cheered 14 victories and 128 goals.
The last of these, a close range header by substitute Spartak Gogniev in the final moments of the final game against Rubin Kazan in November, made little more impact on the stadium’s history than the token gingerbread freebies given away to frostbitten fans as a goodbye gesture before they are temporarily re-homed.
But there are some big numbers not mentioned in Yuzefpolsky’s report, largely because they are already all too familiar to local fans and tax payers; numbers that have rocked public confidence in the World Cup coming to Yekaterinburg and undermined support for the public funding that will bring it here.
In a World Cup build-up sullied worldwide by controversy and ill-feeling Yekaterinburg has seen more than its fair share. Situated among the freezing Ural Mountains, the easterly most of the 11 host cities first pledged to re-develop its Central Stadium back in 2004 long before Russia’s bid to land the tournament was announced. That was around the time that local property development company the Sinara Group moved into the fray. 11 years later, it’s a name which leaves a bitter taste in Yekaterinburg.
“The reconstruction of the Central Stadium in Yekaterinburg has looked for a long time like a cover for business, based on the sale of expensive public money” said Russian financial journalist Vladimir Terletskii of the first phase of the stadium’s re-development.
Sinara were initially invited to invest in a relatively minor renovation of the stadium by the Yekaterinburg city authorities, before the global financial slump looked to have derailed the project. The awarding of the World Cup to Russia in late 2009 however revived interest in Central Stadium overnight, and in order to rescue the renovation the Sverdlovsk regional government stepped in with a 1.2 billion ruble loan secured by the state bank Globex.
Suddenly eyebrows were being raised that the public purse was being prised open to bail out a company that had failed to raise the capital necessary to see the stadium project through.
Then the situation turned ugly. The Montenegrin building firm hired to carry out the work were told that their contract with Sinara and the stadium was to be dissolved owing to shoddy work done in the first phase of development. The company filed a law suit, alleging that the 2.5 billion rubles they had been paid wasn’t enough to redevelop a stadium of that size to the standard required.
Either way, the evidence was about to be lost forever. “In order to falsify the amount of work that had been completed, Sinara used jackhammers during the inspection of the columns' the load-bearing capacity, effectively and savagely destroying them” said Terletskii. “They then completely razed the stands, sinking the ends in water.
“It’s very likely that Sinara had wanted to finish the stadium at the former general contractor's expense, and then spend the loan from Globex to cover their own group losses incurred during the global financial collapse.”
The situation became more suspicious when Sinara began to pursue the Montenegrin firm to recover the money they had already paid for the construction. “What’s most interesting is the fact that the state is financing a private investor” said Terletskii. “There are deep suspicions that Sinara is itching to shift this loan over to Sverdlovsk's regional budget.”
In the end a compromise was reached. Sinara ultimately were made to stump up the total cost of 2.5 billion rubles for the completion of the first phase of development, but in return received from the regional government four hectares of land adjacent to the stadium to be used as they saw fit, effectively wiping out their debt at the expense of the public purse.
Fast-forward to 2015 and as FC Ural pack their bags and prepare to move out of Central Stadium, waiting to move in and spend the reported 16 billion rubles put up by the Sverdlovsk administration to bring the arena up to FIFA specification is, astonishingly and despite all the allegations, the Sinara Group.
Despite no longer owning any shares in the stadium – they now belong to Sverdlovsk – the group were awarded the contract uncontested last year to increase the ground’s capacity from 27,000 to 35,000 in time for 2018. Regardless of what has gone on, Sinara still stand to pocket a generous sum from the public account for a project that many in Yekaterinburg deem to already be wildly over budget.
One of those people is the city’s mayor Yevgeny Roizman. On being elected into office last year he immediately seized the initiative to denounce his Vladimir Putin-backed predecessor over the financing of a stadium that the city couldn’t afford and would leave little usable legacy. “To remodel a recently remodelled stadium to the tune of 15 billion rubles is inept and, dare I say it, criminal” railed Roizman about the plans.
The Moscow Times reported that Roizman was “preparing an alternative proposal and will take it to the regional governor, an appointee of President Vladimir Putin, in the near future.” 12 months later no such proposal has materialised, and as the bulldozers roll into Yekaterinburg it looks likely that the mayor’s words were little more than bluster left over from a torrid election campaign.
After all, big words come easily to a man who freely admits to chaining up patients at his privately run drug rehabilitation clinics. That being said, there remains consternation about the way things have panned out.
Currently circulating on the Russian chapter of the action website Change.org is a petition resisting not only the remodelling of the stadium but also the development due to take place on the land handed to Sinara by the government in 2011.
“The adaptation of the Central Stadium for the 2018 World Cup would entail a violation of the rights of residents of Yekaterinburg for the protection and promotion of health, destroy cultural heritage, and worsen the environmental situation” runs the mission statement.
Feared to be at risk are the Ural State Medical University and the Institute of Maternity and Infancy Research, and their utility to the long term future of the region is being fiercely defended over the “construction of residential and commercial real estate” that Sinara have earmarked for the surrounding land. The protesters also allege that protocol hasn’t been followed as regards making the plans accountable to the democratic process.
“The City has shown a disregard for the laws and has violated the rights of citizens to participate in decision-making. The Central Stadium project represents the destruction of the integrity of the urban environment, at an unjustifiably huge cost.”
FC Ural have been something of a yo-yo club in post-Soviet Russia, but despite being left one place above the relegation play-offs by their defeat to Rubin Kazan hopes are high that they will be able to build on an 11th place finish on their return to the top-flight last term and consolidate in the Premier League in time to move back into Central Stadium in 2017.
At least there is no risk of the stadium becoming a white elephant, standing empty whilst a generation of tax-payers pours in money to clear a debt racked up for the sake of just a handful of matches.
The city has already wrenched concessions from FIFA to build a stadium of 35,000 seats rather than the 45,000 the governing body had previously insisted on, saving some 2 billion rubles in the process. After the World Cup the capacity will be decreased further to ensure that FC Ural, with their 5-6,000 average gates, are not made to feel like the butt of a FIFA joke in their own vast, empty stadium.
One thing at least that will be familiar to the Ural faithful when they file back into the ground in three years time will be the six giant Soviet-era plinths that greet spectators on match days. They have been declared listed monuments by the national government meaning that all building work will have to remain faithful to their structures.
If nothing else they will provide a much needed tonic to the upheaval that has accompanied the stadium project so far – a vital link to the past for an amphitheatre whose history reaches back more than a century and forms an iconic part of Russia’s sporting heritage. And if a handful of gingerbread cakes are tossed in for good measure, Yekaterinburg might yet make an impression when the world comes to visit in 2018.
Robert is @hoovesonfire.
Picture credit Cerulean5000.