Russia spent billions building stadia for the 2018 World Cup, but what is happening to them now? In Saransk, the intended tenants have already moved out…
On 16 November Russia hosted Belgium in the penultimate Euro 2020 qualifier. Both teams were already through and not too many tears were shed as the home side were torn apart, beaten 4-1 by Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and the Hazards. If anything, this was probably a good result to temper expectations, which got slightly out of control after Russia breezed through their relatively weak qualifying group. Once again, it was the stands that caught the eye, for all the right reasons in these post-World Cup days, with 53,000 in attendance. Team Russia had been on tour around the country, playing matches at the venues used at the 2018 World Cup, finishing, appropriately, in St. Petersburg, which should (unless WADA has anything to do with it) host four matches next summer.
The construction of the arena was laughable and tragic at the same time – it took over 10 years, cost the equivalent of over a billion dollars and involved some questionable labour practices, including the reported use of North Korean workers. It has been arguably Russia’s flagship ground since the World Cup, hosting internationals and Champions League matches, also recently awarded the 2021 final. Just as Peter the Great had intended 300 years ago, St. Petersburg continues to serve as Russia’s “window into Europe”, football-wise anyway.
Away from the bright lights of Russia’s most attractive tourist destination, the legacy has been more mixed and nothing demonstrated the contrasting fortunes more than the fates of Saransk in central Russia.
Saransk always felt like a weird choice for the World Cup, a city of about 300,000 in the republic of Mordovia, which is mostly known in Russia for its…penal colonies. Its centrepiece, the shiny new Orthodox cathedral, also feels somewhat absurd, given that it is dedicated to a canonised 18th century admiral, Fedor Ushakov, who sank numerous Ottoman fleets, crossed paths with Horatio Nelson and spent his last years at a local monastery but…well, the nearest sea is 700 miles away.
The local club, FC Mordovia Saransk, only made it to the Russian top flight in 2012, yo-yoing for a few years, before definitively going down in 2016, and again in 2017 all the way to the third tier while the Mordovia Arena was going up just across the Insar river from its modest Start stadium. Thus, seeing huge hordes of Peruvians and Colombians descend on the place in June 2018 was more than a little surreal.
In the meantime, FC Mordovia were promoted and prepared for life in the FNL, the Russian second division. Initially, all seemed well, with average attendances at the 45,000 capacity stadium averaging above 20,000 until mid-September. They then halved and halved again, and with the team plodding along in mid-table barely 5,000 turned up for the last game before the winter break. Stories of thousands of free tickets for local workers, students and schoolchildren began to emerge as local officials were doing all they could to create an impression of a post-World Cup boom. Of course, this was not a phenomenon limited to Saransk. While the veracity of Potemkin villages of yore has been questioned, the sentiment behind them has never been denied.
In early 2019 it was reported that the operating costs of Mordovia Arena are around 280 million roubles (£3.5 million) per annum, with 95% coming from the federal budget. By autumn, it was suggested that the stadium could end up on the republic’s hands as early as next year. Apparently, Moscow is feeling the squeeze. Given that the price of hosting a match is approximately 2.4 milllion roubles (£30,000 pounds), it is difficult to see how the stadium could ever become profitable, even if you throw other events in the mixer. And then the local club realises that it cannot afford it. Well, given that the club is financed out of the local government budget, you can see the problem.
FC Mordovia kicked off its 2019 spring campaign at the arena against FC Tambov, a club from a city of similar size about 250 miles away. The game drew a crowd of 3,000 as the visitors ran out 3-1 winners. They carried on in that vein and won promotion at the end of the season, while their hosts that day remained bogged down. The attendances did not improve. The club owed millions of roubles in rent.
There was a flurry of interest in football in Saransk over the summer as Team Russia came to town, taking on San Marino as part of the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign. Over 42,000 packed out the stadium, trying to reprise the carnival atmosphere of the previous year. The Russians won 9-0 and then…things went back to normal.
Over the summer it transpired that Tambov’s ground did not meet the Russian Premier League regulations. At the same time, FC Mordovia made less and less financial sense. And so the club returned to their old stadium with its plastic pitch, while FC Tambov moved in across the river to the Mordovia Arena. On 20 July 3,500 watched Mordovia take on Spartak-2 (Reserves), while next door three days later 23,000 piled in to see FC Tambov take on Spartak itself, the so-called ‘people’s team’, well-supported right across the country.
While that opening day was very much an exception rather than the rule, FC Tambov continue to reside in Saransk, attracting several thousand per match, this now feels like a dream for their neglected neighbours, who failed to even reach four figures in five of their last six home league games. When Fakel Voronezh turned up for the meeting of FNL’s two worst sides on 17 November only 417 officially came to watch. A drab 1-1 draw left FC Mordovia Saransk bottom of the league.
Just 16 months after the World Cup, it is difficult to see how local football would survive in Saransk. FC Tambov will, of course, go home at some point, leaving the local officials devising further hare-brained schemes to justify the stadium’s continued funding. As for new scandals with WADA and actual Euro 2020 in St Petersburg, as far as Saransk is concerned those events might as well be happening on the moon.
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