(ATR) Russia is on a collision course with FIFA over the number of cities and stadiums it uses for the 2018 World Cup.
After the string of delays that botched Brazil’s preparations for the 2014 edition of FIFA’s showpiece, president Sepp Blatter and his No.2 Jerome Valcke are keen to avoid a repeat of the troubled build-up to the World Cup.
Valcke, who is tasked with overseeing World Cup preparations for FIFA, indicated before this summer’s tournament in Brazil, delivered against all odds largely glitch-free, that lessons would be drawn from 2014 preparations. The biggest lesson would be not to have 12 stadiums scattered around 11 cities in a country as vast as Russia that will make travel for fans even more tortuous and expensive than in Brazil.
Last weekend, on his two-day stay in the southern Russian resort of Sochi, host of the 2014 Winter Olympics, Blatter met Russian president Vladimir Putin and held talks with the chairman and the CEO of the 2018 World Cup organising committee, Vitaly Mutko and Alexey Sorokin. Blatter knows Mutko well; the Russian sports minister is on the FIFA ExCo.
"At the meeting with Mutko and Sorokin, FIFA president Blatter discussed a possible reduction in the number of venues for the 2018 FIFA World Cup as well as matters linked to the capacity of the arenas that will be used for the upcoming edition of FIFA’s flagship event," a FIFA statement said.
Nearly four years after Russia won 2018 hosting rights, the organising committee has every right to feel aggrieved if FIFA insists on chopping two stadiums and dropping two host cities who have been investing heavily in World Cup plans since December 2010. It’s the cities who will be hit hardest, missing out on the global spotlight in four years’ time and the financial benefits associated with World Cup hosting.
FIFA's plan to stage group games in ‘clusters’ to better manage the 2014 tournament met with resistance from Brazil. The plan for four ‘clusters’ of venues in Russia makes sense, but the financial roadblocks and construction delays already impacting stadium projects in the 11 cities is an indication yet again of the difficulties ahead for FIFA in delivering venues on time.
Mutko, who is quoted by the ITAR-Tass agency saying the 12 stadiums plan "is not being changed", and Sorokin may ultimately be persuaded that it’s in Russia’s best interests to scale back the World Cup work. Unless Putin has other ideas, and puts his foot down.
Earlier this year, Sorokin told Around the Ringsthat no city was at risk of being axed. He said there was "no indicationor anything that prompts to discuss any cuts" to the host cities. "The list is approved by everybody. I don’t see any issues with finance. The state program is approved and is working and all finances are set for all the stadiums and supporting infrastructure. It’s all earmarked," Sorokin said at the time.
ATR could not reach Sorokin for comment today.
"At this stage there is nothing further to add to what FIFA have already stated, other than discussions are continuing in order to find the best solution for all parties involved," Russia 2018 said in a statement to ATR.
There is no certainty on when the number of host stadiums will be confirmed. But it seems likely a decision will be made at FIFA’s executive committee meeting in October, to avoid any further slippage on the stadiums construction timetable.
This week, a FIFA delegation is in Russia inspecting some of the proposed sites of the 2018 World Cup. One of their stops will be the new Kazan Arena, which opened on Sunday as the first completed stadium for the FIFA showpiece. Moscow’s new Spartak Stadium opens later this month. Of the 12 planned venues, seven are still at the design stage, with Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium undergoing a major revamp and Sochi’s Fisht Stadium set for a renovation following the 2014 Winter Games.
St Petersburg’s retractable-roof stadium going up on Krestovskiy Island, the most expensive World Cup project at over $1 billion, has been dogged by delays but work goes on. St Petersburg will stage the opener and decider of the 2017 Confederations Cup and is a semi-final destination at the World Cup. Luzhniki Stadium stages the other World Cup semi-final and the final.
In July, Volgograd, Kaliningrad and Yekaterinburg were assessing their construction projects following a previous hint from FIFA that it may cut the number of arenas. They appear most under threat and may yet be axed from the list of World Cup stadiums, if FIFA has its way.
But such a move would provide little relief to Valcke's 2018 World Cup headache. Russia's transport infrastructure, previously billed by him as a major problem area, is set to be FIFA's biggest worry for many months to come.
Logo Launch... Russia 2018 will unveil its new emblem in a big PR event at the end of October.
Written by Mark Bisson
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