This weekend, Russia begins hosting the Confederations Cup, a warm-up tournament that is usually a dress rehearsal for the World Cup. Somehow, the Russia World Cup is only a year away (the tournament will begin June 14, 2018). I know, I can't believe it either.
Over the next few weeks, we'll get our first real look at how the Russia World Cup might go, albeit at a much smaller scale. The Confederations Cup games will take place in four different cities across the country. Three of the venues have been in operation for years; the fourth, St. Petersburg Stadium, was supposed to have been completed a decade ago (more on that in a bit). Russia plans to host the World Cup matches in 12 stadiums next year, including those four. Only one of the other eight venues has been completed. In addition to the stadiums, there are billions of dollars worth of infrastructure improvements pending, including airport and roadway upgrades, that are related to the World Cup but in some cases not directly coming out of the tournament's budget.
But the progress of construction is just a small part of the Russia 2018 story. On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting abuses at six stadium construction sites, including unpaid wages and hazardous working conditions. In addition, at least 17 workers have died on World Cup stadium construction sites, according to the Building and Wood Workers' International union. Workers were pressured not to report these violations to visiting FIFA delegations. There are also growing concerns about widespread discrimination and racism, hooliganism, corruption, and broadcast rights.
Confederations Cup Venues
St. Petersburg Stadium – St. Petersburg
Originally the crown jewel of Russia 2018, St. Petersburg Stadium has instead become a symbol of Russian corruption. It is perhaps the greatest stadium boondoggle in history and maybe the most expensive stadium in the world.
The stadium broke ground 11 years ago—before Russia had even been awarded the World Cup—but is still not fully functional and something like 550 percent over budget. It would take a long article or short book to recount every delay, mishap, or setback for the St. Petersburg Stadium, but suffice it to say, very few people know the true cost. It was originally supposed to have about a $220 million price tag, but the final official government tally is $700 million. Non-government estimates are much higher, ranging between $1.1 billion and $1.5 billion. An FT report from 2016—eight years after its initial projected completion date—detailed a whopping 2,000 problems with the stadium, including leaky roofs and a pitch that vibrated when FIFA officials jumped on it.
To fix these myriad of issues, instead of using local "volunteer" workers as one politician suggested, the construction firms turned to actual North Korean slave laborers, as detailed by a Norwegian magazine and affirmed by FIFA president Gianni Infantino. Zenit, the club that will call the stadium home, played two matches there in April before having to go back to their temporary venue because the pitch was of such poor quality. It has since been replaced.
Kazan Arena – Kazan
The Kazan Arena was completed in 2013.
Fisht Olympic Stadium – Sochi
Used in the 2014 Winter Games, this stadium did not need any major construction work for the World Cup.
Otkrytiye Arena — Moscow
Completed in 2014. Home of FC Spartak Moscow and the Russian national team.
Other World Cup Venues
Luzhniki Stadium – Moscow
Built in the 1950s, the stadium underwent a major renovation that was only recently completed. It will be the main stadium for the World Cup, hosting the opening and final matches.
Rostov Arena – Rostov-on-Don
As of June 9, construction at Rostov Arena was 80 percent completed, according to local media reports, up from 76 percent in April. The deadline for the stadium completion is December 25, but officials plan to hold matches there in November.
Kaliningrad Stadium – Kaliningrad
Russian Football Union president Vitaly Mutko (yes, the same Vitaly Mutko who was sports minister during the Russian doping scandal but fell up into a newly created Deputy Prime Minister role invented just for him) recently said that this will be the next stadium ready after Rostov.
Ekaterinburg Arena – Ekaterinburg
Located in the easternmost host city, Ekaterinburg Arena is another stadium plagued by corruption and delays. Ekaterinburg Arena is being built in place of the demolished Central Stadium. During the World Cup, it will have a capacity of 35,000, but plans call for part of the roof and 10,000 seats to be removed after the tournament ends. The stadium was supposed to be completed early this year, but they are still constructing the exterior and installing electricity, ventilation, heat, floors, and the pitch itself.
Mordovia Arena – Saransk
The stadium is "almost 70 percent" complete, according to a state newspaper.
Nizhny Novgorod Stadium – Nizhny Novgorod
On June 9, the press office for the regional governor reported that they will start sowing grass in July. The plan is to complete all the work on the field by the fall. On June 13, a man working on the stadium died after falling from a height that allegedly violated safety regulations. Construction is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year.
Samara Arena – Samara
According to investigative news site OpenRussia , a source who is part of the construction team said the stadium was "about 52 percent" complete as of the end of April. In April 2016, cost projections increased by 25 percent to 17 billion rubles due to the devaluation of the ruble. Three months later, Igor Shuvalov, Russia's deputy prime minister, said the costs would be at least 18.2 billion rubles. In order to get the project back on schedule and reduce costs, the organizers decided to use cheaper materials for the roof. The stadium's original architect, Andrey Lykov, told OpenRussi a that "in light of the recent Olympic Games in Sochi I would not be surprised if the quality of construction and installation work in the end will leave much to be desired."
Volgograd Arena – Volgograd
The stadium is 67-69 percent ready, according to Sergey Kamin, the director of construction. The roof has to be mounted via a complex set of cable systems, but first the cables have to be arranged. This is scheduled to be completed by the end of July. Construction on the stadium as a whole is "on schedule" and should be completed by November 27, followed by extensive testing of the heat, water, and electricity systems during the winter months while the tram line to the stadium is completed. The stadium is scheduled to be officially opened for business in April 2018. Of course, that timeline was provided before the stadium caught on fire.
Russian Broadcast Rights
Domestic (Russian) TV rights to the Confederations Cup were only just finalized on June 11 for an undisclosed price, six days before the event began. The rights were sold to Match TV, a free sports channel created in 2015 by order of Vladimir Putin and in conjunction with Gazprom Media, a subsidiary of Gazprom, one of FIFA's seven biggest corporate sponsors.
Why did Match TV and FIFA wait so long to reach an agreement? Match TV appeared to be the only broadcast entity with any real interest in the event for anything close to FIFA's asking price, but FIFA wanted to bundle the Confederation's Cup with the World Cup rights for some $120 million, a 275 percent increase over the 2014 World Cup rights. To make a long story short, Match TV won the game of chicken. The Russian broadcast rights to the 2018 World Cup remain for sale.
Ever since several hundred Russian hooligans attacked peaceful fans from other countries during the 2016 Euros in France, there has been rampant speculation that the upcoming tournaments in Russia will feature much of the same.
Sven Daniel Wolfe, a researcher at the University of Zurich, Switzerland who is currently in Russia studying the effects of the World Cup, told me via email that the hooliganism issue is "fairly overblown (in my opinion)" because, in the grand scheme of things, soccer just isn't that popular in Russia. Although there are some ultras, their total number isn't very large. There's really no way to know what will happen in advance, but widespread hooliganism at events hosted in Russia doesn't serve Putin's aims to "showcase" his country in a positive light.
In any event, the police state is expected to be enormous for the World Cup, and Putin signed legislation to impose harsher punishments for hooligans. As James Appell wrote in Foreign Policy last year, however, there are larger cultural forces at play than whatever a few hundred or so ultras might decide to do. Russia, Appell wrote, is "a country whose modern domestic soccer culture recalls the mostly white, mostly male, working-class nature of the sport in Western Europe two-plus decades ago, before safety regulations, stadium policies, and commercialization attracted a wealthier, more ethnically diverse, and more family-oriented clientele." Western European countries made massive (and controversial) moves to stamp out hooliganism from soccer. Russia seems to be replicating very few of those initiatives.
Related to the hooliganism issue, Russian soccer has a long history of racist incidents at games, perhaps most infamously detailed by the Brazilian player Hulk in 2015 when he told the Guardian that he encounters racism "almost every game" while playing in the country. During the two seasons previous to that interview, the FARE Network, which monitors discrimination in European soccer, documented 100 such incidents at Russian games. More recently, FARE reported 92 incidents of discriminatory displays and chants by Russian fans in just one season.
Four months ago, the Russian Football Union appointed the former Chelsea midfielder Alexei Smertin as an anti-racism inspector—whatever that is—even though Smertin seems almost uniquely unqualified for the job. He has previously said, "There's no racism in Russia, because it doesn't exist."
Ahead of a friendly between Germany and Cameroon in Sochi last month, Russian fans, led by Sochi's mayor, literally paraded down the street in blackface and held bananas while wearing Cameroon jerseys. Russian authorities later said that they didn't know blackface was considered a racist gesture in the Western world and apologized.
Wolfe said it's entirely possible that the Sochi mayor and parade organizers didn't know the cultural significance of blackface in the West. He also doesn't consider it farfetched that it was a well-intentioned, if horribly misguided, attempt to be inclusive, but added, "Not that that matters in the end—it's kind of their job to make sure these things translate across cultures."
Still, Wolfe isn't too concerned that racism will be a big issue during the World Cup itself. Due to the influx of foreigners, the fan base for World Cup matches will be decidedly different than the average Russian soccer game. Also, Wolfe added, although local officials may be clueless, "the organizers at the federal level (not local small fry like [Sochi mayor Anatoly] Pakhomov) are keenly aware of what a racist incident would do to the Russian image on the international stage." For that reason, he's putting his money on "a very sterile, artificially safe environment in the regional host cities."
For its part, FIFA recently announced its own anti-discrimination efforts at the Confederations Cup. They will deploy FARE-trained discrimination monitors at matches to report discriminatory actions for possible sanctions. Also, referees will have the authority to stop play until such chants or actions cease, and even abandon the match if they do not. FIFA will also play anti-discrimination videos prior to matches, and for the final two matches "will also celebrate the FIFA Anti-Discrimination Days with a special pre-match protocol, an annual event." Meanwhile, in the Russian subject of Chechnya, gay men are currently being held in secret prisons, tortured, and in some cases killed.