2018 World Cup preparations enter ‘active phase’ despite hitches

A 3D image of the proposed Baltika Stadium in Kaliningrad. 13 Russian cities are to host FIFA World Cup matches in 2018. Source: TASS

A 3D image of the proposed Baltika Stadium in Kaliningrad. 13 Russian cities are to host FIFA World Cup matches in 2018. Source: TASS

FIFA inspectors expressed satisfaction with Russia's preparations to host the sporting spectacle. However, some tournament-related projects remain clouded in uncertainty.

Russia has officially entered the “active phase” of its preparations for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, so expect to see new soccer stadiums popping up around the country in the next few years.

Wait - you thought the last World Cup had only just finished? You thought that when Mario Goetze fired Germany to that win over Argentina in the final in July, that you could just forget about the World Cup until 2018? I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t work that way.

Nowadays, World Cups are bit like American presidential elections or seasons of Game of Thrones. As soon as one’s finished, so the build-up to the next one starts – speculation, spurious leaked claims, the works.

With Russia the star of the show as host of the 2018 World Cup, organizers have been keen to churn out updates on their progress, with every new detail of the whole nightmarishly bureaucratic process trailed in the media.

The strategy appears to be that this will stave off any comparisons with Brazil, whose preparations were full of doubts over whether the infrastructure would be ready in time. In the end, temporary seats were used at one unfinished stadium and some airports had to use terminals in tents.

To be fair, the Russians do seem to be making good progress. Moscow’s vast Luzhniki arena, the venue for the 2018 final, is “ahead of schedule,” the head of a FIFA delegation of inspectors, Chris Unger, said as he viewed the site on Oct. 20. Three of the 12 stadiums are finished, two of them already hosting games, while building work is under way across the country.

FIFA’s delegation proclaimed itself satisfied at a press conference on Oct. 22 after finishing its inspections, but their tour was a rather bizarre event, more of an extended look at the plans than an in-depth probe. For starters, only five of the 12 planned venues were actually visited, three of them finished stadiums.

The other seven, where construction has barely started if at all, were subjected only to so-called “virtual inspections,” effectively meaning the inspectors took a peek at the blueprints and had a chat with the officials in charge. The on-site inspections were not much more rigorous, with one day allotted for each and much of that spent traveling.

On Oct. 20, for example, the visit to Luzhniki saw inspectors climb out of their minibus, take a quick peek at the building site, where only the façade of the old stadium remains, hold a quick press conference in pouring rain, then drive off again. That may seem strange, but at this stage, FIFA’s Unger suggested, there may be more to gained by examining the plans carefully to avoid problems later rather than staring at the site, especially if relatively little is going on.

Both Unger and Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko favor the buzz phrase of the week, which is that preparations have now entered the “active phrase.” It’s not entirely clear what this means – after all, there is no big red ‘activate’ button that organizers have pushed.

Roughly speaking, it’s code for the actual building work starting at the new stadiums, but even that’s not really clear-cut. Some stadiums, especially the planned 45,000-seat arena in Saransk, started work on the foundations years ago, even without a final decision on the design; other stadiums’ plans have yet to be signed off, and one, in the western city of Kaliningrad, is in a state of desperate confusion.

For several weeks now, there has been a standoff between Kaliningrad’s regional government on one side and the Sports Ministry and World Cup organizing committee on the other. Regional authorities are supposed to have autonomy over how they build their stadiums, funded by the federal government, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in practice. Increasingly it’s a case of “you can do what you want, as long as we agree with it.”

In the case of Kaliningrad, Mutko has been giving ever more dire warnings that Kaliningrad should abandon its planned site for the stadium, an island that he says would require “huge investments” and build a more modest arena on the site of an existing stadium.

That would have a permanent capacity of 25,000 rather than 45,000, fortified with 10,000 temporary seats for the World Cup. Until a final decision is made, the Kaliningrad project is in limbo, and the longer it takes, the likelier it is to drop behind schedule in a scenario reminiscent of the political deadlock that dogged many Brazilian projects.

There’s uncertainty in other projects too. The government says the plans exist and are being checked, but few real details have been released, even of what the stadiums will look like. Some artist’s impressions have been doing the rounds, but they date back to 2010, when Russia was still bidding for the World Cup and no designs had been drawn up. Meanwhile, the exact budget is unclear – it’s still officially 664 billion rubles ($16 billion), but that doesn’t account for big recent currency fluctuations or major infrastructure upgrades linked to the World Cup.

However, there does seem to be definite progress on some projects – just as well, since the closer Russia gets to the World Cup, the more scrutiny there is from the media and public.

One key example is the long-delayed, way-over-budget stadium in St. Petersburg, which finally seems to have turned a corner. The stadium, which was born as a new home for the Zenit St. Petersburg club long before Russia ever bid for the World Cup, was originally intended to open in 2008, and has been plagued by problems – a fraud case, the death of a worker, and ballooning costs are just some examples.

Now, however, it is definitely on target to open in 2016, FIFA and Russian organizers say, quashing rumors the completion date could slip back yet again and threaten World Cup preparations.

While the much-trumpeted “active phase” may be less of a watershed than it seems at first sight, the World Cup is getting noticeably closer. With a few exceptions, it seems to be going to plan too.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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