FIFA, mindful of the travel cost and complexity of this year’s World Cup in Brazil, wants Russia to think again about its scheme for the 2018 finals.
Last month in Rio de Janeiro Russian organising ceo Alexy Sorokin was visibly shocked to hear world federation president Sepp Blatter say that trimming the venues was on the agenda.
The Russians had been busily working on the basis on a formal announcement, back in September 2012, of 12 stadia in 11 cities.
That was before FIFA caught the backlash over an unnecessarily high number of a dozen far-flung stadia in Brazil – and the ‘mere’ European area of Russia is bigger than Brazil. The more stadia and the more travelling mean unnecessary extra expense for FIFA, for organisers and for fans as well as extra security complications.
Blatter, as a member of the International Olympic Committee, is also conscious of concerns about the irresponsibly massive costs being demanded of cities and countries in hosting world sport’s mega events.
The Russian plan comprises four ‘clusters’ for the eight groups as follows: North (Kaliningrad, St Petersburg), Central (Moscow Luzhniki and Spartak), Volga (Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, Samara, Saransk, Volgograd) and South/Ural (Rostov-on-Don, Sochi, Yekaterinburg).
This sounds reasonable until the vast distances are considered. The Russian World Cup stretches a staggering 1,200 miles from St Petersburg in the north to Sochi in the south and 1,500 miles from Kaliningrad in the west to Yekaterinburg in the east.
This is roughly equivalent, in comparative western European terms, of Helsinki to Rome and of Paris to . . . Moscow.
Blatter was in Russia at the weekend for talks with President Vladimir Putin, with Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko (who is also a member of the FIFA executive committee) and with Sorokin.
FIFA said later that, at the meeting with Mutko and Sorokin, Blatter “discussed a possible reduction in the number of venues.”
While the Russians might express disappointment in public it is likely that, secretly, they would be relieved. Mutko, on the eve of the World Cup Final in Rio de Janeiro, had talked of a highly challenging list of construction works essential in the venue cities apart from Moscow, St Petersburg and Sochi (which hosted this year’s $51bn Winter Olympics).
Concern about the stretch and cost of the Russian World Cup comes against an increasingly fraught political context.
Some western European politicians, including Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, have demanded the country be stripped of the finals because of the Russian annexation of Crimea and subsequent military action in eastern Ukraine.
The Crimea issue has brought politics directly into sport because the Russian league has admitted three Crimea clubs to its third division and cup competition.
This was in direct breach of FIFA statutes which direct that clubs can switch countries only with the agreement of both national associations – and the Ukraine federation has objected.
At the weekend Vitaly Kvartsyanyi, coach of Ukraine top division club Volyn Lutsk, added his voice to demands that Russia be stripped of the 2018 World Cup.
Kvartsyanyi said: “I am surprised that FIFA and [European federation] UEFA have not yet barred Russia from all international competitions. If they suggest that this [Russian] policy is not a sports issue, and that they should not be involved in political issues, then this is not the case.
“What is happening has upset football in the Russian half of Ukraine and we – the Ukrainian people, football federation, coaches and players – are not to blame. We have had to reduce the number of top division clubs and almost half of them, in any case, cannot play in their home cities because of the political situation.
“Then what is to become of our clubs who are having to play in the championship of another country? This is nonsense.
“If FIFA were to punish Russia by stripping it of World Cup then even the Russian people could no longer ignore the truth.”
On the Crimea issue, FIFA said only that it would “handle the ongoing matter concerning Crimean clubs based on the relevant processes that should be overseen by the respective confederation (UEFA) in the first instance.”
This means, presumably, that FIFA hopes UEFA will find a solution which saves it from having to square up to the Russians and President Putin.