The Confederations Cup is, as FIFA has regularly reminded us, a proving ground for the World Cup that takes place the following year.
The tournament in Russia, won by Germany in Sunday’s final, has been no different. VAR technology was given a trial run on the international stage, the revamped venues have tested extra security measures and the host cities’ suitability to welcome thousands of foreign football fans has been laid bare.
Now that the Confederations Cup is over, the simple question remains: will Russia be ready to host the World Cup in 2018? Omnisport’s team on the ground in Kazan, Moscow, Sochi and St Petersburg have given their assessment.
— Joe Wright (@JoeWright004) July 3, 2017
To football fans outside of Russia, there is an undeniable air of mystery around Kazan. Moscow and St Petersburg are instantly recognisable and Sochi found fame with the 2014 Winter Olympics, but this sprawling city on the banks of the Volga and Kazanga rivers is largely unknown.
Funding has been poured into the city since its 1000 year anniversary in 2005 and one of the first things you’ll notice is that it’s still being spent. Apartment buildings are springing up almost before your eyes and the roads have almost all been refurbished or rebuilt, easing congestion and allowing public transport to stay punctual.
Kazan hosted student games in 2013 and the World Aquatics Championships two years later and the state-of-the-art venues for those events are still in pristine condition, as is the revamped Kazan Arena. The city wants to be recognised as Russia’s sporting capital and it is certainly going the right way about it.
What will surprise most visitors, though, is the cultural blend. Kazan means ‘cauldron’ in the old Tatar dialect and the region’s capital city boasts a population of 1.5million people which, one guide told us, comprises close to 100 different nationalities, many of whom are students. Leo Tolstoy went to university here, by the way.
The populace is largely Russian and Tatar and there are road signs in both languages (as well as English on the major thoroughfares), while religion is split almost 50-50 between Russian Orthodox Christianity and Islam. There are mosques and churches side-by-side throughout the city and not a hint of animosity or mistrust of strangers.
The best examples are the Kol Sharif mosque and 16th-century Annunciation Cathedral within the Kazan Kremlin, which is certainly worth a visit. If you have a spare half-day, take a coach (or even a taxi — they are amazingly cheap) to Sviyazhsk Island, an old fortress constructed by Ivan the Terrible that has become a community in its own right.
Away from the stadium and FIFA’s army of terrific volunteers, English is not widely spoken, but that is unlikely to make it difficult to reach the ground or order a drink as you sample the local sweet delicacies (‘chak-chak’ the chief among them).
Kazan is not widely known to outsiders but the city wants to change that. My advice? Let it.
— Jon Fisher (@fisherjon10) July 3, 2017
In Moscow, the designated venue for the tournament was Spartak Stadium to the north west of the Russian capital.
A tidy, if somewhat soulless bowl, came alive when the tournament hosts met Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo but otherwise lacked sparkle.
There is also the problem of getting to and from the ground given Moscow’s overworked road network.
Travel on the excellent Metro system – and take in its wonderfully grand stations en route – and you won’t have any issues but go by car and you’ll endure an entirely different experience.
It was a point alluded to by Cameroon coach Hugo Broos who earmarked delays caused by traffic congestion in both Moscow and St Petersburg as one logistical issue FIFA would have to address ahead of next year’s showpiece.
Overcome that, however, and you will find an enchanting city which visitors cannot fail to enjoy. There is a mystique to Moscow you don’t often find elsewhere in the world and a stroll around the historic centre, including Red Square and the Kremlin, is a must.
A walk through the bustling Gorky Park is another highlight – if you are feeling energetic, you can take the path by the Moskva River all the way to Luzhniki Stadium.
In short, Moscow has it all for the tourist and the football fan – and given the effort put into showcasing the city during the Confederations Cup and the expected increase in promotion when the whole world will be watching in 2018, it will be well worth a visit.
It is to be hoped those that do go approach it in the same way as the large contingent from Chile: friendly, sociable, eager to have a good time but also respectful of local tradition and regulations.
Do that and Moscow will give you plenty in return.
— Dom Farrell (@DomFarrell1986) July 3, 2017
The first thing to point out for any fans who believe they have found a hotel bargain in Sochi is that, for the purposes of the Confederations Cup and World Cup, Sochi is not Sochi.
Fisht Stadium is part of the gleaming Olympic Park from the Sochi 2014 Winter Games, which resides 30 miles down the coast from the city of the same name in Adler, part of Greater Sochi.
Whatever we’re calling it, you certainly will not be short of places to stay, with Fisht Stadium flanked by two separate branches of the Radisson Blu, further luxury hotels and high-end holiday apartments.
More no-frills accommodation is available in downtown Adler, a much-loved holiday resort for the native population that is pleasingly ramshackle, having sprung up organically over the decades.
A quick hop down the coast towards the competition venue – a superb stadium with excellent facilities and a seemingly untroubled playing surface – and it is like walking into a different world.
In the Prince of Wales pub a 20-minute walk from the ground, an establishment that will be desperate for England, Northern Ireland and Wales to come to town, a local man told us “that is all fake” in reference to the sports hub.
The lack of a discerning football fanbase in the locality, with Sochi FC having recently withdrawn from competing in the Russian third tier for the 2017-18 season, and this artificial feel means the atmosphere for World Cup matches might depend on who is drawn to play here.
This combination of uber-modern facilities and a lack of established football tradition means Sochi could provide an unintended taster of what to expect from a Qatar World Cup. On the other hand, throw together Brazil and Italy amid 30 degree heat and it might be a truly memorable occasion.
Adler’s proximity to the Black Sea and the Caucasus mountains means it is a location blessed with stunning natural beauty and a trip up to Rosa Khutor – the alpine resort that hosted skiing at Sochi 2014 – is a must before heading back down to linger further among the promenade palm trees.
— Dom Farrell (@DomFarrell1986) July 3, 2017
Given it came in at more than 500 per cent of the initial budget and opened eight years behind schedule, competition organisers in St Petersburg really could have done without the pitch at Krestovsky Stadium not being up to standard.
Teams at the Confederations Cup conducted pre-match training sessions elsewhere to spare the surface and, although it held up well enough during a pulsating final, all eyes will be on how it copes when Zenit play a first full season there before the World Cup.
The stadium is strikingly impressive – a relief given its vast expense – and the surrounding Kirov Park makes for a wonderful pre-game walk up to the ground. It will be one of the places to be to soak it all up during Russia 2018.
The same could be said of the St Petersburg fanzone, which was boldly pitched in the shadow of the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood. The intricate, ornate and vividly coloured domes of the church – built along the Griboedov Canal on the site where Alexandar II was assassinated – is one of the city’s most cherished landmarks and provides a lavish backdrop to an evening of big-screen football.
Breathtaking architecture is the calling card of a dazzling city centre. The Winter Palace, now home to the Hermitage Museum, is another highlight of a place steeped in art and culture.
A stroll around the beautifully kept Summer Garden further underlines that, of all the Russia 2018 hosts, this is the place where travelling fans from western countries will feel most quickly at home. St Petersburg bears instant comparison to the great European cities.
Additionally, the tournament falls within St Petersburg’s “White Nights”, where daylight almost spans 24 hours and the city benefits from a celebratory feel and stunning twilight vistas.
Now, if only they could sort that pitch out…
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