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Boon Or Boondoggle? World Cup Comes To Nizhny Novgorod

Russian World Cup City: Boon Or Boondoggle?
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For some it's a chance of a lifetime, for others a waste of time and money.

Arguably the world's biggest sporting event, the World Cup is coming to Russia, with 12 stadiums in 11 cities hosting the tournament's 64 games starting June 14 up to the final on July 15.

One of the hosts is Nizhny Novgorod, a city of 1.2 million some 425 kilometers from Moscow. Soccer's world governing body, FIFA, calls it "one of Russia's most traditional and beautiful cities."

Some 570,000 foreign fans and 700,000 Russians are expected to attend World Cup matches, according to a study presented by the local organizing committee in April.

For President Vladimir Putin, whose country's relations with the West are at near Cold War lows, the event is an opportunity to showcase Russia and especially the new infrastructure built for the tournament for an estimated and eye-popping $11 billion.

Whether that investment will jolt Russia's economy to further long-term growth is doubtful, however, according to a leading ratings agency.

As elsewhere where the tournament will be held, fans in Nizhny Novgorod are elated that soccer's showcase event will literally be on their front doorstep.

"I can't wait for the World Cup, and here's my giant ticket -- my pass to this epic event," says Andrei Goryunov, a lawyer in Nizhny Novgorod.

An Orthodox church stands in front of the Nizhny Novgorod football stadium.
An Orthodox church stands in front of the Nizhny Novgorod football stadium.

Having won a contest for his devotion to the game, proven by his collection of ticket stubs spanning decades, Goryunov will be sitting in a VIP seat when Nizhny Novgorod hosts its first game on June 18 -- Sweden versus South Korea in a Group F showdown.

Anna Davydova, who has campaigned tirelessly for years to preserve the city's architectural heritage, is not cheering, however.

"I'm pretty much against the World Cup, because the city is losing its historical identity to host the tournament. It's shameful and painful to see how historical objects are crumbling, especially on Strelka."

Stadium Cost Overruns

Strelka, or Spit, is the stretch of land at the confluence of the two major rivers in Nizhny Novgorod: the Volga and Oka.

It is here that ground was broken in 2015 to build the 45,000-seat Nizhny Novgorod Stadium.

However, cost overruns, delays, and allegations of corruption have plagued nearly all the World Cup stadium construction projects in Russia.

And Nizhny Novgorod Stadium is no exception. Originally budgeted at $240 million, the stadium's final price tag was $290 million.

That, of course, pales in comparison to the cost overrun for the St. Petersburg Stadium. One of the mostly costly stadiums ever built, Transparency International put the final cost of the stadium in Russia's second city at $1.5 billion, at least $600 million over budget.

The Nizhny Novgorod football stadium is noted for its unique roof design.
The Nizhny Novgorod football stadium is noted for its unique roof design.

Beyond the budgetary bungles, Davydova, who also heads the local preservation group Spasgrad, says building the stadium forever altered the character of the city.

Gone are the once ubiquitous port cranes, which, according to Davydova, were a symbol of Nizhny Novgorod. And the cargo river port is also no more -- replaced with car parking for fans.

She points to a water tower built in the 19th century that stands in the shadows of the stadium. Instead of reconstructing the dilapidated structure, local government officials merely draped it in a gossamer-like tarp with etchings to hide the eyesore.

"For the World Cup, Nizhny Novgorod has turned into a Potemkin village. This is a cultural heritage site, the so-called 'Market Water Tower,' and it's been covered in banners. There was no attempt over the past five years to restore it. When they drove in heavy machinery to clear this area, it was almost demolished," laments Davydova.

New Infrastructure

World Cup backers point to the infrastructure boom Nizhny Novgorod underwent in preparation for the big event. Besides the stadium, a new airport terminal was built, the main train station was given a major facelift, subway stations were added, and accommodations in the city were upgraded.

Goryunov says Nizhny Novgorod got itself "in order" for the World Cup. He dismisses claims that tourney preparations sucked up money that would have been gone elsewhere, including social programs.

"You have to understand one simple thing: if there wasn't the World Cup, then we wouldn't have seen any extra money anyway," he says. "Not for grandma retirees/pensioners, not students, not teachers, not doctors. It's doubtful Nizhny Novgorod would see that money. Therefore, it's not bad that the World Cup will be here."

Goryunov stresses that the World Cup is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

"It's a huge event with all the world watching. And for the first time ever this event is coming to us in Nizhny Novgorod. And we'll be able to experience its atmosphere, not by traveling to some far-flung place, but just stepping out of your house," enthuses Goryunov, adding that the new stadium is "awesome."

Who Needs A Stadium?

The Nizhny Novgorod Stadium is notable for its design, with the roof appearing to float atop a row of white columns. Said to be inspired by the Volga region environment, the stadium consists of a semitransparent facade that can be lit up at night.

However, as elsewhere in Russia where games are being held, questions are being asked whether Nizhny Novgorod really needs a stadium with a seating capacity of over 45,000.

The city hasn't exactly embraced the local team, which competes in the Russian National Football League, the country's second division. Olimpiyets Nizhny Novgorod averages barely 1,000 fans a game.

"There are not 40,000 soccer fans in Nizhny Novgorod. And there's no normal team either. Why do we need this stadium?" asks Davydova.

At least the city has a team. Sochi, which is also playing World Cup host, currently doesn't have a squad, let alone droves of fans.

In June 2017, FC Sochi announced it was "taking a break," with tentative plans to return to play in 2018-2019.

However, there is hope. Fresh reports say Dinamo St. Petersburg will move to Sochi to become the new occupant of the 48,000-seat Fisht Stadium.

But even with a team, there are other potential pitfalls associated with World Cup stadiums, as Davydova points out. Who will pay for its maintenance once the final whistle blows at the World Cup?

"Maintaining this stadium will cost the city 5 percent of its annual budget. A lot less is spent on social programs in Nizhny Novgorod," explains Davydova.

It's an issue other cities hosting World Cup games are grappling with as well.

In Kaliningrad, the regional governor, Anton Alikhanov, asked Putin last year for federal financial assistance to pay for maintenance on the stadium there after the World Cup.

A few weeks later, Putin ordered authorities to look into whether federal funds could be found to help cover operating costs for seven of the 11 stadiums being built for the World Cup -- in Volgograd, Yekaterinburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Rostov-on-Don, Samara, and Saransk.

It could all be palatable if the World Cup were to spur long-term economic growth in Russia. But that's not likely to happen, according to Moody's Investor Service.

The economic benefit of hosting the event will be "very limited" and "short-lived," analysts from the rating company said in a report published May 31. "The impact is likely to be even lower" than the 2014 Winter Olympics hosted by Russia in Sochi, "which developed an underbuilt resort area that is more accessible than many of the regions where the World Cup will be staged."

Those warnings resonate with people like Davydova. For others like Goryunov not so much. They can't wait for the first ball to be kicked.

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by Current Time correspondent Anton Guskov.
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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.