Russia Prepares to Host 2018 World Cup as Costs Mount
MOSCOW - Even as the World Cup wraps up on today in Rio de Janiero, preparations are well under way for the next tournament, which Russia will host in 2018.
President Vladimir Putin will be on hand for the final match between Germany and Argentina to take the baton, another step in his quest to use mega-sporting events as part of his effort to restore his country's prestige in the world.
Yet even four years out, alarm bells are blaring that Russia has not learned from its experience in hosting this year's Winter Olympics in Sochi.
The Sochi Olympics were the most expensive Winter Games in history, amid cost overruns and allegations of massive corruption. The 2018 World Cup is already following a similar pattern.
The projected cost has already nearly doubled the original budget - and twice what Brazil spent for this year's World Cup. In fact, at more than $20 billion, the current estimate would make Russia's World Cup the most expensive in history.
Russia plans to host the games in 12 stadiums in 11 cities. Beyond the two stadiums in Moscow, venues for the matches will stretch from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea to Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains.
Some stadiums are being built from scratch just for the World Cup. Others, like Sochi's Fisht Stadium, which hosted the Olympics' Opening and Closing Ceremonies, will be nearly new. The rest are aging Soviet-era arenas that will be upgraded for the World Cup to add seats and modernize the interior.
Some of those renovations are of questionable need. Yekaterinburg's Central Stadium had just had an $82 million renovation in 2011 and will undergo another costly renovation for the World Cup.
Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium has a storied history as the host of the 1980 Summer Olympics and just last year hosted the World Athletics Championships. Yet after that competition ended, the stadium was closed for a gut renovation that will cost more than half a billion dollars. Organizers decided to preserve its historic façade, but the interior is a giant construction zone.
According to Martin Muller of the Unviersity of Zurich, who has studied Russia's preparations for the World Cup, the $7 billion price tag for the 2018 tournament's stadium is already 50 percent higher than Brazil's much criticized budget and 3.5 times higher than what Germany paid when it hosted in 2006.
"Rather than building a 'new Russia,' as proponents claim, the mega-event magnifies the problems of the old Russia," Muller wrote in his comprehensive study, pointing to creeping costs, diversion of resources from other civilian projects, and unnecessary expenses.
Russia's economy is stalling and massive state spending on the World Cup is likely to strain the country's budget. What's worse, Russia's sports minister recently warned that some of the projects are already falling behind schedule, despite oversight by FIFA, soccer's main governing body, which organizes the World Cup.
Yet the problem may not end after the final whistle blows in 2018, according to Muller.
Visitors to Sochi just weeks after the Winter Olympics ended witnessed a ghost town. The gleaming new stadiums, hotels, and housing complexes sat empty, with few viable plans for their use in the works.
With little local need for giant stadiums, Muller notes, the World Cup venues that will only host a few games each may only serve as a hulking, costly reminder of extravagance once the fans have gone home. The economic costs, he says, may last much longer.