How will hosting the World Cup change Russia’s football culture?

On a good day, it takes barely 15 minutes to drive from Spartak Moscow’s new stadium – a World Cup host venue – to Petrovsky Park, former and future home of Dynamo Moscow. But the six-mile journey offers a clue about the possible legacy of Russia’s World Cup and the way the tournament has already started to change the culture of the world’s biggest game in the world’s biggest country.

My first experience of Russian football was back in 2006. Dynamo, a giant of Soviet soccer struggling in the post-Communist era, took on Amkar Perm in a grim relegation battle. The action was relentlessly dour: a goalless draw enlivened by two red cards, a dozen yellows and a (correctly) disallowed goal.

The hosts, eager to drum up support for a team struggling against an unprecedented drop from the top flight, had slashed ticket prices for the day. Beneath the vast floodlight pylons of a stadium built in 1928, the cheapest seats were 30 roubles (about 50p at the exchange rate of the day) and the highest charge was 100 roubles (£2). The stadium, its capacity down to 24,000 after a post-war heyday when it held more than 50,000, was still less than half full.

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Fan facilities were sparse, with a couple of half-hearted merchandise stalls and watery tea sold with packets of crisps. A sense of decay seeped out of the crumbling concrete bowl, smearing its way over weather-stained, faded plastic seats and permeating the dismal action on the field. It was as far from a global footballing jamboree as could be imagined.

At that time, with Guus Hiddink just settling in as manager of Russia’s national team, the sport was at a low ebb. Despite CSKA’s UEFA Cup win the previous year, football lagged far behind tennis in terms of prestige. The national team had failed to progress past the group stage of a major tournament since the break-up of the USSR, while the collapse of the old Soviet championship had separated traditional rivals and injected a raft of provincial outsiders – Amkar prominent among them – into the top division. Leading players had kicked off an exodus of popular talent, and what had once been a source of pride and passion was in danger of turning into an embarrassment. The huge crowds that once thronged the stadiums of the Soviet Union were long gone, with just a hardcore of disaffected youngsters replacing them.

Football had a bad rap. The Monday after my visit to Dynamo I went to my regular Russian lesson. Irina Petrovna, our highly cultured and dignified teacher, responded with horror and for once my mangling of verbs of motion wasn’t to blame. The word of the day became ‘opasno’ – ‘dangerous’; going to the match was strictly for the violent underclass, not foreign specialists.

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A 15-minute drive, or a nine-year wait. Shortly before my wife and I returned to England in September 2015, we went to see Russia play Sweden in a Euro 2016 qualifier at Spartak’s Otkrytiye Arena. When I’d first submitted to the police pat-down at Dynamo, this was derelict land next to a disused airfield. A year or so later, amid great ceremony, Spartak laid the first stone of their new stadium. Russian cynicism, mindful of a long-mothballed metro station beneath the ground, began speculating on how long we would wait for the second stone to join it. Only in 2012, with the prospect of hosting World Cup matches, did work begin in earnest on a new, modern arena.

The contrast with Dynamo’s old home, closed since 2009 and awaiting its own leap into the 21st century, was immediate. Gleaming glass and steel in place of crumbling concrete, no running track to separate the stands from the action. A concourse large enough to house food and drink concessions that might entice fans to eat, even a recreation with table football decked out in Spartak branding. Russia had built it, but would they come?

The game against Sweden was not an obvious highlight for the national team. The qualification campaign had been dreadful: in six games, only Liechtenstein had been beaten on the field. Fabio Capello was sacked and Leonid Slutsky was called up as an emergency Messiah. Defeating Zlatan Ibrahimovic and co. was the only way to maintain a chance of reaching Euro 2016 and there wasn’t much optimism about Russia’s chances.

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In the past, that would add up to a small crowd of die-hard fans, many on heavily subsidised tickets. Here, though, with the World Cup and its related infrastructure changing public perceptions about the game, we had a sell-out. Not a triumphalist, roaring sell-out of the kind that filled Luzhniki as Dick Advocaat’s team swept aside Andorra to complete the formalities of a place at Euro 2012, nor a gathering of the ultras that so terrified Irina Petrovna. Instead, these were largely ordinary Russians, arriving in hope rather than expectation and paying relatively high prices for tickets: a typical European football crowd.

The story has been repeated elsewhere. In Saint Petersburg, Zenit’s new 64,000-seater home attracted average crowds of 44,000 despite a disappointing season on the field. In Saransk, where football is traditionally second to race-walking, third-tier Mordoviya had more than 40,000 for a promotion six-pointer against Syzran, a huge crowd in a league where attendances struggle to break into four figures. There’s a palpable buzz and it has been growing since the run to the semi-finals of Euro 2008, via the rise of accessible fanzones and big screens in city parks for the major tournaments of 2012, 2014 and 2016. Following football became socially acceptable, perhaps even socially advisable, for the first time in decades.

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This, then, is the World Cup face that Russia hopes to show the world over the coming month. Impressive, comfortable and contemporary arenas housing enthusiastic yet well-behaved fans. A country united in its love of sport and eager to invite the world to see Russia at its best. Having worked at other major international events – the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the 2015 FINA World Championships in Kazan, the 2016 World Ice Hockey Championship in Moscow – I’m confident that the outward face will be maintained. The tournament will pass off successfully and, hopefully, visiting fans will leave with a positive impression of Russia.

But what of the legacy? Officially, this is portrayed a showcase of Russian prestige (or a chance to wave its World Cup Willy, if you prefer) and an opportunity to persuade hostile outsiders that Russia is not threatening, merely different. However, not everyone is convinced. As far back as 2011, less than a year after the World Cup was awarded to the country, proposed changes in the legislation governing behaviour in stadiums outraged ultra groups all over the country.

The flashpoint came at an international in Saint Petersburg, where two blocks of fans silently filed out of the stadium 60 minutes into Russia’s 3-1 win over Armenia. Among the empty seats a banner read ‘posle zakona’ (After the law), a mute protest against the perceived neutering of ultra culture and the sterilisation of stadiums.

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Enraged at not being consulted and inflamed by the threat of a ban on pyro, Russia’s traditional fan base took a stand. This group, the ones capable of turning the Moscow Metro into a no-go area when Spartak and CSKA clash, will be on a tight leash during the World Cup. It’s hard to imagine any repeat of the scenes in Marseille two years ago will be allowed to tarnish the reputation of the 2018 World Cup.

But once FIFA’s fanfares fade away, Russia will need to work hard to secure the legacy of a new footballing culture, inclusive and family-friendly, if it is to continue to attract crowds big enough to fill those shiny new temples to the beautiful game.

Andy Potts’ e-book, ‘Snow on the Seats: a fan’s journey through Russian football in the build up to the 2018 World Cup’ is available for download from Amazon for £3.49.

How will hosting the World Cup change Russia’s football culture?
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