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No euphoria in Russia over most expensive soccer championship ever

Russian soccer fans have welcomed FIFA's decision to give the 2018 World Cup to Russia. But many Russians fear that the financial burden may be too high.

Russian soccer player Andrei Arschavin

Many Russian people have their eyes on the bill, not the ball

In the streets of Moscow and elsewhere in Russia there were no signs of euphoria following FIFA's decision to grant the 2018 World Cup to Russia. The public reaction appeared to be rather subdued compared to the outpouring of joy three years ago, when Russia secured the 2014 Winter Olympics. Even though soccer is one of Russia's most popular sports, many Russians say they never really cared whether the championship would take place in Russia or elsewhere.

Part of this wariness may be explained by worries over the actual cost of the event for Russian taxpayers. As experience with the preparations of the Winter Games in Sochi has shown, the ultimate expenses may well be far higher than originally planned. More than three years before the curtain-raiser, it is already clear the games in Sochi will be the most expensive ever. The same was true for the Eurovision Song Contest held last year in Moscow. And many observers are already convinced that the 2018 World Cup will be the most costly in history. With the short-lived euphoria over FIFA's decision over, reality has sunk in quickly.

Vladimir Putin shakes hands with FIFA President Sepp Blatter

Vladimir Putin (r.) says people are exaggerating the potential costs

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin denied the costs would be too high during his press conference in Zurich late on Thursday, hours after FIFA had announced its decision.

"According to preliminary calculations, the construction of stadiums and adjacent infrastructure will cost us around $10 billion (7.6 million euros), comparable to what was spent on the championship in South Africa,'' he said.

Besides, he argued, part of the work was already underway and would be financed by large companies like Russia's gas monopoly Gazprom, the oil company Lukoil, and others. Also, he joked, Russian billionaire and Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich "has a lot of money" and will certainly want to help out financially.

All that, said Putin, means that the ultimate cost might even be lower than current estimates.

On the heels of that statement, Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin was quick to announce that the cost of the soccer championship would likely be lower than that of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, without mentioning figures.

But critics in Russia question the official calculations and point out that total investments must be well higher, given that Russia not only needs to build 13 brand new stadiums in the coming seven years, but also create a huge infrastructure that does not exist today. Dozens of large and hundreds of small hotels must be erected in Moscow and elsewhere to house the hundreds of thousands of football fans during the tournament.

For the hotels alone an estimated $11 billion will be required. Almost 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) of new roads will have to be built, costing over $35 billion. Many railway stations and airports need to be completely renovated. All this represents a truly daunting task for any country, but it's a unique challenge in today's Russia, where all this work must be carried out alongside the ongoing preparations for the Winter Games in Sochi.

One-off costs, long-term gains?

The Joint Information Center for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi

Russia must now prepare for two major global sports competitions

The Russian government emphasizes that many of the impending infrastructural projects "would have been carried out anyway," only at a later stage. The World Cup will simply speed things up, they argue, presenting the extra costs connected with the football tournament as a long-term investment in the development of the country as a whole.

"Russia is rising,'' said Putin in Zurich. "And in 2018 it will be even stronger.''

Corruption may be another problem.

Traditionally in Russia large building projects, be it roads or football stadiums, are often much more expensive from the onset than similar projects in other countries. This is usually because large amounts of money are siphoned off by state officials involved in the project.

The Kremlin is well aware of the problem, judging by the apt exclamation on Twitter of presidential aide Arkady Dvorkovich: "Let's do it without kickbacks.''

This was more likely a serious appeal than a humorous "tweet" in a country where corruption is rampant and still on the rise, according to the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.

Author: Geert Groot Koerkamp, Moscow
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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