Tale of 11 cities

Russia, with an area of 17.1 million sq.km, is the largest country to host the quadrennial FIFA World Cup. The host cities are spread across the western part of the country, crossing four time zones.

Moscow

Russia’s capital and biggest city plays host to five clubs – Dynamo Moscow, Spartak Moscow, Torpedo Moscow, Lokomotiv Moscow and CSKA Moscow. Dynamo Moscow, initially ruled by the Soviet Union’s secret police in the years after the Russian Revolution, holds pride of place as the oldest football club in the country, and it shares a fierce rivalry with Spartak Moscow – a side founded on blue collar values. Torpedo Moscow rose to fame in the 1960s, on the back of attacking outfield player Eduard Streltsov – the Russian Pele. Lokomotiv, run by the erstwhile Soviet minister of transportation and still owned by the ministry through Russian Railways, shed its underdog status in 2002 by claiming the Russian Premier League title. CSKA Moscow, meanwhile, has emerged as the dominant force in modern times, having clinched six Russian Premier League titles in the last 13 years.

The Luzhniki Stadium, which hosted the 2008 Champions League final, is the main venue for the 2018 World Cup. The 80,000-capacity stadium will host the opening match, three group matches, a round-of-16 match, one semifinal as well as the final.

 

The smaller Spartak Stadium, where Spartak Moscow plays its home games, will host four group matches and one round-of-16 fixture.

Saint Petersburg

Russia’s second largest city hosted its first football match way back in 1897. In modern times, the city is represented by Zenit Saint Petersburg and Dynamo Saint Petersburg on the club circuit. Zenit has brought home several domestic and international honours – including the 2007-08 UEFA Cup and the 2008 UEFA Super Cup.

 

The massive, old Kirov Stadium was home to FC Zenit from 1950 to 1993. Now demolished, the venue attracted a crowd of 110,000 in 1951 – a record for a Soviet football match. The 2018 World Cup matches will be held at the new Krestovsky Stadium, which was inaugurated last year after numerous delays. At an estimated $1.1 billion, it is one of the most expensive football stadiums ever constructed.

Kaliningrad

Russia’s westernmost city, and home town of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, bears a heavy European and Western influence – its an exclave bordered by Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea. The city has a proud military history, a result of the Soviet Union seizing Kaliningrad from the Germans in 1945.

Football in the city is dominated by Baltika Kaliningrad, a club that’s mostly played in the second tier of Russian football. It had a brief successful run in the 1990s, which included three seasons in the Russian Football Premier League, but now finds itself in the second-tier Football National League.

 

The Kaliningrad Stadium, which will host the marquee England-Belgium group stage clash, is a new venue, replacing the ageing 14,000-seater Baltika Stadium. But in a city that lacks footballing prowess, there is a danger of the new stadium becoming a white elephant after the fanfare of the World Cup is done with.

Rostov-on-Don

Rostov-on-Don shot into the footballing limelight in 2016, when FC Rostov finished second in the domestic league – the best result in the club’s history – and followed it up with a fabulous Champions League campaign that included wins over Ajax and Bayern Munich, a dream run that ended at the hands of Manchester United in the round of 16. SKA Rostov, the second club in the area, was a force to be reckoned with 60 years ago; today, it plays in the third-tier league.

 

Construction for the 45,000-seater Rostov Arena, which was briefly halted in 2013 when five unexploded World War II shells were found, was completed only in April. The stadium will host four group stage matches – including Brazil vs Switzerland – and a round-of-16 outing.

Rostov-on-Don is also the birthplace of Victoria Lopyreva, Miss Russia 2003 and an ambassador for the 2018 World Cup.

Volgograd

The city witnessed the largest confrontation of World War II, the Battle of Stalingrad – the bloodiest battle in the history of warfare and a key victory for the Allies.

Volgograd – the name was changed in 1961 – is home to two clubs, Olimpia and Rotor Volgograd, whose biggest win was against Manchester United in the first knockout round of the 1995-96 UEFA Cup. While Olimpia competes in the fifth tier of Russian football, Rotor Volgograd plays in the second-tier Football National League.

 

The new Volgograd Arena will host four group stage matches of the World Cup, with the England-Tunisia clash expected to attract the most interest. As was the case with the Rostov Arena, work on the Volgograd Arena was briefly halted after unexploded bombs from the Battle of Stalingrad were found at the site.

And similar to Kaliningrad’s case, a lack of football depth may see the 45,000-seater Volgograd Arena become a financial liability to the city after the World Cup concludes.

Kazan

This cultural melting pot is remembered in history books as the site of the Siege of Kazan in 1552 led by Ivan the Terrible. In recent times, Kazan has forged an identity as the sporting capital of Russia, having hosted various international events like the 2013 Summer Universiade, the 2014 World Fencing Championships and the 2015 World Aquatics Championships.

 

Rubin Kazan, the city’s only professional football club, boasts high-calibre players such as former Arsenal midfielder Alex Song and Sardar Azmoun, the Iranian Messi. In 2009, Rubin Kazan recorded perhaps the biggest upset in Champions League history when it stopped a marauding Barcelona side – that featured Carles Puyol, Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, Lionel Messi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Yaya Toure and Thierry Henry – 2-1 at Camp Nou.

European giants Germany, Spain and France will be playing during the group stages at the imposing Kazan Arena, which will also host one round-of-16 and one quarterfinal fixture.

Ekaterinburg

Ekaterinburg is located a few miles from the Asia-Europe border and sits on the ancient Silk Road that connected the Far East and Europe.

The city’s football history, however, does not contain much of note. Silverware has eluded the area for about a century, with local club Ural Yekaterinburg unable to threaten the big guns of Russian football.

 

The remodelled Centralny Stadium sits in the middle of the bustling city centre, with waterways just a few blocks away lending a scenic touch. The picturesque 35,000-capacity venue will host four group matches, with the France-Peru and Japan-Senegal outings standing out as the highlights.

Samara

After World War II, Samara (then known as Kuybyshev) made a mark in spaceship innovation, so much so that the Samara Arena has been renamed the Cosmos Arena, and local club Krylia Sovetov – not a big name in Russian football, with nothing more than a few second division titles to boast of – will be playing its games there instead of the outdated Metallurg Stadium. The club, whose name translates as ‘Wings of the Soviets’, returns to the Russian Premier League for the 2018-19 season after a long absence.

 

The 65.5m dome roof of the stadium – which has a seating capacity of 44,918 and was built at an estimated cost of $370 million – stands out as a spectacular sight. The venue will host four group matches – including a home fixture for Russia – apart from a round-of-16 fixture and one quarterfinal clash.

Sochi

After the massive success of the 2014 Winter Olympics, the city gained popularity as a top tourist destination. The Fisht Olympic Stadium, which will host big teams like Germany, Portugal and Belgium at the World Cup, was initially built for the Winter Olympics at a cost of $779 million. Subsequently, the roof was removed to make the stadium compliant with FIFA regulations.

 

The remodelled 47,000-seat venue hosted the 2017 Russian Cup final between Lokomotiv Moscow and FC Ural. But Sochi has little in terms of footballing culture – the city has been without a professional club since struggling FC Sochi shut shop in June last year. Like some other venues, the Fisht Olympic Stadium could turn out to be a poor long-term financial investment.

Nizhny Novgorod

Located around 470km from Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod is an automotive and submarine manufacturing hub, but its local football operations are not much to write home about. Lokomotiv Nizhny Novgorod, which reached the Intertoto Cup semifinal in 1997, closed operations in 2006 because of a lack of funds, and Volga Nizhny Novgorod recently declared bankruptcy, leaving second-tier side Olimpiyets Nizhny Novgorod as the city’s only active professional club.

 

Olimpiyets Nizhny Novgorod will use the new Nizhny Novgorod Stadium as its home ground after the World Cup. England and Argentina will be seen in action here during the group stage.

Villarreal player Denis Cheryshev was born in Nizhny Novgorod, but he moved to Spain with his father at the age of six.

Saransk

Saransk’s selection as a host city raised some eyebrows given the city’s poor footballing history. Krasnodar and Yaroslavl, both of which have ready-to-use stadiums and a vibrant football fan base, were surprisingly overlooked. Saransk, the capital of the Republic of Mordovia, is better known as the site of camps that housed dissidents under the Soviet Union. But the 45,000-seater Mordovia Arena, construction of which commenced in 2010, has been praise by FIFA.

 

Local team Mordovia Saransk suffered a second straight relegation in 2016-17 and now plays in the third-tier Russian Professional Football League. In general, though, Mordovia is regarded as a sporting hub, having produced several national and international sportspersons of note.

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