A giant crane towers over the Moscow stadium where Russia will stage the 2018 World Cup final and mounds of earth, pipes and cables are piled up where the soccer pitch should be.
Little is left of the Luzhniki Stadium except its outer walls and a statue of Communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin outside as Russia sets about converting the Soviet-era relic into a state-of-the-art arena.
Perched beside the River Moskva, it is a symbol of a bigger transformation President Vladimir Putin wants to showcase at the World Cup – Russia’s development since Soviet days into a modern state worthy of a seat at the table of top nations.
It is a risky gamble.
The Winter Olympics in Sochi this year put the spotlight on corruption, cronyism, cost overruns and Russia’s record on democracy and gay rights.
Brazil’s experience of hosting this year’s World Cup has also proved sobering, with the focus on building soccer stadiums instead of national infrastructure causing street protests and the national team’s failure on the pitch leaving a hangover.
While the Kremlin was able to ban protests in Sochi during the Olympics, tolerating them only in a designated area far from the sporting action, a blanket ban will be harder to enforce in 11 cities during the World Cup finals.
Putin will be particularly vulnerable to demonstrations in Moscow and St Petersburg, scene of the biggest rallies during a wave of protests against him in the winter of 2011-12.
“It’s a double-edged sword. These state events attract attention and are a good chance to showcase a country, but there is no end of downsides in terms of bad publicity,” said Allison Stewart, associate fellow in the BT Centre for Major Programme Management at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School.
Although he is less directly associated with the World Cup than he was with the Sochi Olympics, Putin’s own personal and political prestige will be at stake. This is particularly important as his six-year presidential term ends in 2018 and he could run in an election a few months before the finals.
Putin was in Brazil for this year’s final and sent officials to the tournament to prepare for 2018, but it is not clear whether Moscow has learnt lessons from its experience of hosting the Sochi Games and Brazil’s problems in staging the World Cup.
“There doesn’t seem to have been any soul-searching in Russia to really understand why the cost of the Games was so much more significant than it was originally meant to be. If they have done it, they certainly haven’t communicated it,” said Stewart, who conducts research on events such as the Olympics.
Although winning the right to host the Winter Olympics and the World Cup in quick succession stirred national pride, Moscow has faced calls for the finals to be played elsewhere because of its role in the Ukraine crisis and media allegations that the World Cup bidding process is marred by foul play.
Republican U.S. senators Dan Coates and Mark Kirk cited Yugoslavia’s exclusion from the 1992 European Championship and 1994 World Cup over the wars in the Balkans when they pressed such demands in a letter to soccer’s governing body FIFA.
“It’s absurd! Russia has a stable social and political system. There is no point in putting forward this argument. Russia won the right to host the tournament fairly and is a faithful partner,” Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko told Reuters.
Russia will host the 2018 World Cup in 12 stadiums in 11 cities, with Games being played at two stadiums in Moscow.
The most westerly venue is Kaliningrad, the main city in an exclave next to Poland and Lithuania, and the furthest east will be Yekaterinburg, the city in the Ural mountains where the last tsar was shot dead shortly after the 1918 Bolshevik revolution.
Others are Volgograd, which was hit by two suicide bombings that killed 32 people plus the bombers in December, Kazan, Samara, Sochi, Saransk, St Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod and Rostov-on-Don, near the border with Ukraine.
The Sports Ministry said in March that hosting the World Cup would cost 620.5 billion roubles ($18.16-billion), with 172.6 billion being spent on building and upgrading sports facilities and the rest of the sum going on infrastructure development. But Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has said the World Cup will probably cost Russia more than $20-billion and critics say costs are likely to spiral, as they did for the Sochi Games.
Russia has not said how much the Winter Olympics cost in the end but the figure of $51-billion cited by media is more than four times the $12-billion price tag of Russia’s initial bid.
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