Soccer (or football, depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on) fans from around the world are packing their bags, donning their jerseys, and traveling from around the world all the way to Russia to attend the World Cup 2018 this month. Since Russia’s nomination in 2010, the world power has been shifting into high gear in preparation for the estimated one million fans planning to attend the tournament.

Hosting the World Cup has always been big, ringing in tourism and, to a large extent, prestige. When South Africa became the first African natiton to host the World Cup in 2010, many saw it as a new era for continental Africa – notwithstanding the misconceptions the world has about Africa. Nonetheless, to host an international event like the World Cup takes political stability, a deep well of financial resources, and a good image.

According to a Statistica report, development plans in preparation for the World Cup 2018 cost Russia a hefty $1.9 billion, $627 million of which were allocated for ‘local organization’ and infrastructure. With such an invested effort, the Russian government is hoping the World Cup will instigate economic growth in the months following the tournament’s close in July.

But despite Russia’s grandiose plans for the World Cup and expected returns, there seems to be some skepticism about the extent to which the world superpower’s economy will benefit from hosting the tournament. We take a closer look at the preparations for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and what lies ahead for the host cities after the close of the tournament.

World Cup 2018

The World Cup tournament finds its roots in Olympic soccer matches, which is what initially inspired the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) to organize an international soccer tournament. The inaugural tournament was hosted in Uruguay in 1930 and has been held every four years since – with the exception of a hiatus during and immediately after World War II, when the Cup was cancelled (1942 and 1946). For this year’s tournament, 211 teams from around the world were eligible to qualify to play for the cup, with 32 teams making the cut to play in Russia.

Countries that want to host the World Cup go through an extensive selection process whereby FIFA sends a delegation to gauge whether or not a country is capable of hosting a tournament as big as the World Cup. Prior to this selection process, the tournament would just alternate continents every four years. 

When in 2010 Russia and Qatar won the bid to host the 2018 and 2022 games respectively, Bloomberg published (paywall) an article supporting the win of two ‘emerging economies.’ After their bid was submitted, Russian president Vladimir Putin came out as strongly supportive of the bid and pledged up to $10 billion in the lead-up to the games. 

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Late last month, Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich claimed that Russia’s preparation for the World Cup over the past five years brought $14 billion in revenue into Russia, making up just one percent of the country’s total GDP. He also said that Russia’s total spending on preparations for the world renowned tournament will add about $26 billion to $30.8 billion to the country’s economy within the 2013-2023 decade.

American financial research company Moody’s, however, recently published a report (paywall) that says otherwise. According to the report, Russia’s economy “will only experience a short-lived economic benefit from hosting the FIFA World Cup 2018 tournament” despite the Russian government’s claims that suggest otherwise.

Russian Winds of Change 

Putin’s excitement for the bid to host the World Cup in 2010 was not unfounded – the development efforts that his government commissioned in the lead-up to the tournament is proof of that. Since the Euroasian superpower won the bid, a number of changes have been made to Russian infrastructure in preparation for the tournament.

When the bid was submitted, Russia didn’t have a single stadium that could hold more than 80,000 spectators. Russia now boasts eight standard stadiums, four arenas, and 95 training grounds that were constructed in the past five years. Russian cities also saw massive infrastructural development, with 10 projects commissioned to ‘modernize’ the country’s water and sewage systems. Across the country, 16 regional hospitals were renovated and about 620 ambulances were purchased.

Because the World Cup is being held in 11 different cities across Russia, transportation within and between cities is crucial for the success of the tournament. According to a preliminary report published on Russia’s official website for the World Cup, 20 railway terminals were built and approximately 180 kilometers (111 miles) of train tracks were laid. In Nizhny Novgorod, airport capacity improved by 30 percent, while in Samara, Rostov-on-Don, Saransk, and Yekaterinburg airport capacity improved by more than 100 percent; in Volgograd, the airport’s capacity improved by a whopping 280 percent.

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Courtesy of Human Rights Watch

New underground metro stations were built in Nizhny Novgorod, Moscow, and Saint Petersburg and all 11 cities hosting matches saw an upgrade in on-ground transportation. The development also reached Russian citizens themselves, with approximately 210,000 Russians receiving some sort of skill or job enhancement in the construction, hospitality, and communication industries, among others. Russia has also reported about 220,000 jobs were created in the lead-up to the World Cup.

Yekaterinburg, a host city east of Moscow, and home to the Church on the Blood, also received a change that was unexpected, even for the city’s residents: the demolition of a Soviet-era skyscraper in the city late last March. The governor of the Sverdlovsk region, Yevgeny Kuivashev, believed the city “didn’t need such a symbol.” The city’s residents, however, disagreed with the move, starting a ‘hug the tower’ campaign to prevent its demolition, but that didn’t stop its destruction. One resident said to Deutsche Welle demolishing the city’s tower was as if the Eiffel Tower in Paris was to be demolished.

Far from skin deep, the infrastructure built in preparation to host the tournament is in fact likely to improve quality of life for residents of Russian cities in the medium-term. But despite the accelerated development, the benefits – mostly for the economy and the country’s tourism industry – might not materialize in the aftermath of the World Cup. For many, Russia does not seem to be a primary destination on tourists’ list of countries to visit. In 2016, Russia welcomed a mere 24.57 million tourists – for scale, that is a quarter of the number of tourists who visited Turkey in the same year. And even beyond the lack of appeal for some tourists to visit Russia, many are disdainful towards the Eurasian country.

Trials and Tribulations of Hosting

As governmental officials have repeatedly said, the international tournament is expected to ring in decent economic gains from the games. The concern of many critics, however, is not whether or not this money will flow back into the Russian economy, which almost naturally comes with any large-scale sporting event as big as the World Cup. But, rather, whether the financial returns will meet the $1.9 billion that reportedly went into the development plans for the tournament. (Arguably, even more money has been funneled into the preparations).

As for the sporadic infrastructural upgrades, what is to happen to the new railways, roads, airports, hotels, and hospitals? Will they continue to be used by city residents as a sort of unintended consequence of the World Cup? Or will they fall into disrepair and remain that way, since they were not necessarily intended for Russian citizens? 

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When Brazil won the bid to host the 2014 World Cup, then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva saw the tournament as an opportunity to tackle Brazil’s infrastructural and economic problems. As with Russia, the World Cup was seen as a lucrative opportunity, which supposedly justified the $13 billion spent in the preparations for the 2014 World Cup. Most of Brazil’s projects, upgrades, and renovations, however, were left, as Reuters put it ‘half baked.’

The most ambitious of the projects was a $16 billion bullet train connecting Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro – the first of its kind in Latin America, that never made it past the drawing board. Brazil spent a hefty $11.3 billion on maintaining or repairing Cup-related infrastructure, spending a third of that on building stadiums in host cities. Today, Rio de Janeiro’s older Maracanã stadium lies empty and unused, even following the 2016 Olympics.

Despite the excitement about hosting the World Cup, Brazilians were angry that the majority of funding was funneled into infrastructure relating to the tournament itself when many were struggling to make ends meet. And with a government focusing tax money on Cup infrastructure, it seemed most of the changes that were made to infrastructure were solely for the purpose of hosting foreign fans and tourists – some of which were never even finished. Perhaps one of the longer lasting improvements was work on Brazil’s airports, which was planned anyhow.

The large faux pas on the government’s part to adequately allocate spending aside, Brazil was still keen on announcing its plans to repurpose some of the stadiums and playing fields used during the game. The first call to repurpose the unused stadiums suggested turning them into sites for affordable housing after the World Cup. For Brazil – and especially surrounding the World Cup and Olympics – the lack of affordable housing stood out as a national epidemic. Reports of entire favelas being evacuated to make room for Olympics’ preparations sparked controversy across the country.

When London hosted the Olympics in 2012, the government pumped three times the projected cost of £8.77 billion ($11.27 billion) into hosting the games. And although the government only made £9.9bn ($12 billion) in trade and investment related to the games, many Britons want the Games to return to London.

Part of this success can also be attributed to strategically planning pre-Game renovations and construction. London’s Olympic Village, previously a contaminated waste site, became the site for affordable and private housing after the games ended. The Olympic Village, later called ‘East Village,’ was pre-designed to become housing in Stratford long before the games began. In fact, every single site used for the 2012 London Olympic games was repurposed following the end of the tournament.

Russia fairs relatively well among previous hosts in terms of expenditures on preparations for the World Cup. The United States, France, and Germany, all of which had robust infrastructure prior to hosting the World Cup, each spent under $1 billion on pre-Cup preparations. South Korea and Japan spent a combined $7.5 billion, South Africa spent $6 billion, and Brazil spent a whopping $15 billion – perhaps because of the infrastructural upgrades that were necessary to properly host the Cup. Russia, however, still spent less than the latter three host countries. How exactly Russia spent so little when Putin initially put forth $10 billion in 2010 could either gesture towards how strong Russian infrastructure is or how frivolous the country’s spending was in pre-Cup preparations.

A Tournament To Get Behind…or Not

As soccer fans await the beginning of the tournament, many have begun to plan their itineraries, internal transportation, and making checklists of must-dos. On a Facebook group boasting some 16,000 members, the most commonly asked questions for the past two months have been Russia-specific. The Guardian even wrote a travel guide of three out of 11 Russian cities that will host the games, giving travelers a peek at what to expect in one of the biggest countries in the world.

Despite the widespread excitement – which seems contagious – not everybody is so thrilled about Russia hosting the World Cup for a number of reasons. The English Royal Family and British Prime Minister announced they would be boycotting the World Cup this year in Russia due to the political gaffe that was the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripalin in London earlier this year.

Just one month shy of the World Cup’s inauguration, media agencies have reported that the tournaments official guide encourages LGBTQ+ fans to refrain from “publicly displaying their sexuality,” sparking an uproar by media and on social media. This goes against what the Russian Football Association and World Cup ambassador Alexei Smertin had initially said. “You can kiss all you like, and hug one another, within the bounds of normal reason,” Smertin said. But with reports of other fans threatening to stab and ‘beat up’ LGBTQ+ fans – in addition to Russia’s tainted history of hate crimes against its LGBTQ+ community – many fans are hesitant to attend the tournament.

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An LGBT+ protest against the violence in Ukraine in 2014 (CC: InkBob)

With London and Rio as a reference point, we can begin to understand how the World Cup – or any large-scale sporting event really – impacts countries that host them. While the Cup promises host-countries economic and infrastructural fruits that many are keen on reaping, not every host country can effectively maximize those benefits, as was the case in Brazil.

In regard to this year’s Cup, the preparations necessary for hosting the tournament seem to be strategically calculated. Russia hasn’t held back on preparations directly related to the World Cup like constructing new or repairing old stadiums and training fields. And with an emphasis on infrastructure built to last like airports, railroads, and hospitals, Russia seems to have found a balance between infrastructural upgrades and Cup-related preparations.

As for the potential gains that can come out of hosting the Cup, the coming few years will tell if hosting the World Cup brought about more benefits for Russia or left it worse than it was before. 

An earlier version of this article stated that the World Cup has been held every year since 1930; the World Cup was cancelled in 1942 and 1946 during World War II. This article was also edited for clarity on 13 June, 2018.