Some Western observers expect Russia’s World Cup to be scuttled before 2018 – perhaps by the FIFA corruption investigations, or tensions arising from Vladimir Putin’s aggressive policies, or fears of violence and racism among the country’s football fans. A group of sports scholars from Western Europe and North America recently visited one of Moscow’s new stadiums, built for the tournament. Their verdict? Russia might actually be ready for the world’s biggest sporting event.
The recent FIFA scandals have raised questions surrounding Russia’s right to host the 2018 World Cup. Swiss officials are investigating at least 53 cases of money laundering related to bids for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments, and the FBI also has an open, ongoing investigation. Reaction from Russia was quick and remains steadfast. President Vladimir Putin called last month’s arrests of FIFA officials an overextension of U.S. power across national borders. Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko insists the 2018 bid was clean, that Russia has “nothing to hide.” Some fear that a new cold war in football is near. While it is still too early to speculate on how the issue will be resolved, Russia continues with its plans. Construction of new stadiums remains on track, and some are now open to the public.
One of these new stadia is Moscow’s Otkrytie Arena, which opened in September 2014. With a capacity of some 45,000 spectators, the stadium is the new home of Spartak Moscow, Russia’s most storied club. Founded in 1922, Spartak has a long, anti-establishment history. Throughout much of the twentieth century, it won not just championships, of which it accumulated nearly two dozen, but also the hearts of the people. Spartak was known, after all, as the People’s Team. As historian Robert Edelman noted in his award-winning book Spartak Moscow: A History of the People’s Team in the Worker’s State, “Sport was one of the few areas of life in which ordinary folk did have options.” Starting in the 1930s, many people in the Soviet Union chose Spartak, seeing their support of the club as a way to use “sport to manifest attitudes toward a variety of institutions and groups, including the party-state.”
The club experienced years of success in the post-Soviet era, dominating the top division of Russian football in the 1990s. However, since the early 2000s, Spartak has been overshadowed by rival teams on the pitch and scandalized by hooliganism and racist incidents in the stands. Manuel Veth recently wrote on the blog Futbolgrad that Spartak is in crisis, not just on the pitch, but also on the management rungs. Despite the recent resignation of club chairman Leonid Fedun—the man who steered Spartak into Otkrytie Arena—it is business as usual, for now.
Yet, for the casual fan, none of the turmoil was evident at a late-May game between the People’s Team and FC Ufa. What is it like to go to a Spartak game? Is a visit to a Russian stadium really as rough and rowdy as it’s made out to be in Western media? How akin – or not – is the game experience to that in other stadiums in Europe? Moreover, what glimmers of 2018 can be discerned in the new stadium? These questions were in mind when Edelman led a group of sports historians from North America, Western Europe, and Russia to Otkrytie Arena.
“I thought it would be fun and a cool way to end a sports conference,” Edelman said. It was indeed a fitting way to wind down such an event. The roughly two dozen scholars were in Moscow for a seminar in the collaborative research project, The Global History of Sport in the Cold War, part of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project. With diverse experiences of attending football games in Western Europe, Africa, and the United States, the group set off for the new stadium after the last afternoon’s closing statements.
Even though the game was Edelman’s first in the new stadium, it was a homecoming. “It was cool that Spartak finally had a stadium of its own,” he said. Red and white paneling gleamed in the afternoon sun as spectators streamed from the newly constructed Metro station towards the entrance gates. Special forces greeted fans in and outside of the Metro and gaggled in greater numbers at checkpoints around the stadium’s perimeters. Inside, the sparkling new environs were impressive. “The stadium was very nice,” Edelman observed, “with great sight lines, ease of entry and exit, even decent food.” Concession stands served kvass and nonalcoholic beer alongside hot dogs and other stadium fare.
Red plastic seats ensconced the derrieres of young and old alike, while stadium personnel, stationed strategically every few feet, ensured the crowd maintained order and adhered to the rules: no smoking or alcohol consumption. The few fans who traveled from Ufa, some 830 miles (1,338km) east of Moscow, were seated behind mesh nets (likely to prevent objects thrown onto the pitch), surrounded by security.
Several of the scholars in the group were unsure what to expect at the game. Christopher Young, Dean of Arts and Humanities at Cambridge University and co-organizer of the seminar (along with Edelman), was surprised by the crowd. “I set off for this game with some trepidation,” he said, “having been told that the crowds could be aggressive and violence was common.” While this was not the case that Saturday afternoon, the authorities were more than ready.
The crowd, for all of the warnings received ahead of time, was strikingly similar to one at any MLS game. Families with younger children were in attendance, with a Spartacus mascot on hand to pose for photographs. There were many more women in attendance than one expected, certainly more than at Paris Saint-Germain matches ten years ago. Indeed, despite the numerous stalls, the Ladies Room still sported lines at halftime.
Edelman pointed out that Spartak’s lackluster playing record likely fed into the more moderate crowd – as did the fact that Ufa was facing relegation. Had this not been the case, he said, “there would have been more people and more energy” at the game. “I have attended crazy intense games,” he said, “and games where the crowd was pretty indifferent.”
For historian Erik Scott, also a specialist in Russian history, the experience was a pronounced change from previous games he has attended in the capital. “Attending a match in Moscow has changed dramatically in the past decade or so,” he reflected. “While rowdy Spartak ultras are still a presence, a more family friendly atmosphere prevails in the rest of the stadium.” Edelman was quick to point out, however, that “even if there had been trouble, it would not have spread to all sections of the stadium.”
The game itself was scintillating in the first half, less so in the second. There was a litter of yellow and red cards (Spartak 4 yellow, 1 red: Ufa 3 yellow), and Spartak fell to the visitors by a 2-1 score. According to Young, the level of play was much more akin to MLS than to other European leagues. “Despite the obviously higher standard,” he said, “players had the room on the ball that their North American counterparts enjoy and their German and English (especially their English) counterparts are denied. The game was clean, swift, and not without some moments of skill.”
After the game, spectators walked back to the Metro station between portable metal barriers. Stationed every two meters on both sides of the makeshift corridor were security forces. “Why were they all so young?” Young wondered.
“Apart from the Cyrillic script,” Young observed afterward, “the stadium could have been anywhere in Europe.” Erik Scott judged that the impressive stadium and experience shows Russia’s readiness to host foreign visitors for the 2018 World Cup. However, he noted, “Spartak may need to score some impressive victories here to make it feel like a true home for the storied Russian club.”
Depending on the FIFA scandal fallout, and any further military adventures that Vladimir Putin might be planning, World Cup goers may – or may not – share a similar experience. What is the longer-term perspective on the question? Robert Edelman pointed out that the International Olympic Committee had long shown an “amoral internationalism” when dealing with regimes that were less than democratic. “FIFA has similarly never been concerned by its choice of partners.”
Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff is a historian and author of The Making of Les Bleus: Sport in France, 1958-2010. She has written on French football and basketball for The New Yorker, The New York Times, and CNN International. Lindsay is on Twitter at @Lempika7.