When Sochi hosted the Winter Olympics back in 2014, the impressive Fisht Arena raised eyebrows. Not just because it served as the stage for the lavish opening and closing ceremonies, but also because its longer term future was somewhat unclear. Always intended as a 2018 World Cup venue, one of Russia’s brightest, newest football stadiums seemed oddly placed in a town with a limited football history.
True, Sochi had given us Zhemchuzhina. Complicated name, but a simple meaning – pearl, in English. In the 90s it played in Russia’s top flight, relishing the chance to mix with the big boys in the confusion of post-Soviet sport. Folded in 2003, it was reformed in 2007. For a time, the team was on the up. Promoted to the second tier of Russian football and enjoying enthusiastic financial backing, it had a nationwide advertising campaign behind it. The sight of banners in Moscow promoting a team from the Black Sea was intriguing, but these pearls were apparently cast before swine. The money ran out and the team dropped out of the professional leagues with little sign of an imminent return. Football in Sochi these days is played at the Yugsport stadium (10,700 capacity) in Russia’s third tier. FK Sochi don’t require a home ground on the scale of the Fisht.
Instead, the arena is a showpiece venue. Russia internationals, cup finals and, of course, international tournaments are all played here. Which is fine, except that Moscow’s Luzhniki is set to re-open as a national stadium in time for the World Cup and Sochi, for all its charms, is a relatively remote place to have Russia’s national stadium. It might be a bit like building Wembley in Cornwall – pretty, popular with tourists, but not exactly easy to get to for most of the country. Moreover, having built the stadium with a roof, that had to be removed in order to comply with FIFA’s standards for open-air football. At the same time, the ends of the stadium – originally left open so the Olympic torch could pass through on the final lap of its relay – were fully enclosed, pushing the capacity up to 47,600.
Whether the design was wasteful, and whether it was built in the wrong place altogether are legitimate concerns, but should not detract from another high-quality stadium. Good sightlines from all areas, and sleek modernistic design inspired by the nearby Fisht mountain that gives the stadium its name. Plus, vital for FIFA bigwigs, impressive corporate facilities.
Those Olympic ceremonies set the tone for Russia’s 2014 showcase. The opening ceremony was stronger than the finale: a brief yet effective excursion through Russian history that combined the inevitable onion-domed whimsy with some rewarding sections inspired by the constructivists of the early Soviet era and the classic movies of the Mosfilm studio. Overall, it was a slick, well-choreographed display – and the one, minor glitch was neatly incorporated into the closing ceremony. A new Russia, with a smile on its face?
Yes and no. The Olympics certainly showed signs of an approachable Russia. The army of volunteers, recruited widely across the country, presented an outward-looking, multi-lingual generation of students that were a credit to all concerned. But the games left a minor quibble. Traditionally, events like this wrap up their host cities in an enveloping party. Even if you don’t have tickets and don’t wish to attend the action, the carnival spills out down the main streets, rolls into the bars and restaurants, and generates a holiday mood. On different occasions, and at different championships, I’ve experienced this in places as diverse as Kazan, Kiev and Ostrava. In Sochi – as acknowledge by more experienced Olympic observers – the Games rarely got beyond the compound. Out of sight of the flame, Sochi’s everyday life seemed as remote from these Olympics as it had from every previous edition. Can the World Cup do more to bring the party to the people next summer?
Interested in Russian football? Groundhoppers’ new e-book, Snow on the Seats, gives a personal journey around the country and its stadiums. Written in the build-up to the 2018 World Cup, it offers a glimpse at how Russia, and its football, has changed in the run-up to the tournament. Available for download to Kindle devices and a bargain at £3.49, it’s a unique primer for this summer’s excitement. Find it here