An aerial view of Stadium Saint Petersburg, one of the playing venues of the World Cup
An aerial view of Stadium Saint Petersburg, one of the playing venues of the World Cup

Russia — the land of subzero temperatures, natural beauty and authoritarianism (read Vladimir Putin) ... Formerly the largest part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR), Russia has always been a huge hunting ground for sporting talents.

The Soviet Union ranked first in the total number of medals won in six summer and seven Winter Olympic Games. The Soviet Union also ranks first for total medals won in gymnastics, wrestling, weightlifting and volleyball; while Russia is first for synchronised swimming. The USSR was also the main challenger to the United States’ dominance in athletics before Jamaica, providing many record-breaking athletes during the 1970s and 80s.

Football, however, has never been one of Russia’s strong sports. Despite the fact that they have two Olympic golds and that they won the inaugural edition of the European Championships in 1960, Russia has never enjoyed success in football. Their clubs don’t have a particularly good record in the UEFA Champions League either — no Russian club has ever reached the semifinals. On a lower level, Russian clubs have only won the Europa League twice with CSKA Moskva becoming the first Russian club to win a European title in 2005, and Zenit St. Petersburg following it up in 2008.

As the countdown to the 2018 FIFA World Cup begins, a look at how we and the qualifying teams got there

The success of Russia’s bid to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup was thus a bit of a shock. But in the long term, it might be beneficial as it is in accordance with FIFA’s plans to expand the game.

THE BID

FIFA announced in 2007 that after the 2014 edition, any country could bid for the World Cup as long as the continent they belonged to had not hosted any of the past two World Cups. This meant that African and South American countries could not bid for the 2018 cup.

The Soviet Union had only once bid for the World Cup before, losing out to Italy in the race to host the 1990 edition. Russia expressed its interest in hosting the World Cup after FIFA’s announcement in 2007, which almost guaranteed that the tournament would take place in Europe. Russia formally announced its intent to host the World Cup in early 2009. The Russian President Vladimir Putin took a keen interest in the bidding procedure himself. He appointed the Minister of Sports, Vitaly Mutko, to prepare an official bid for Russia after FIFA opened registrations.

Russia was one of the eight countries that bid for the right to hold the biggest footballing extravaganza in the world in 2009. Mexico withdrew later, while Indonesia’s bid was rejected. The final four candidates were Russia, Netherlands/Belgium, Spain/Portugal and England. The Russian bid team pitched the World Cup as an opportunity for Russia to consolidate its steady growth since the fall of the Soviet Union. It also highlighted how the World Cup would act as a way to build up footballing infrastructure in the country, thus paving the way to greater audience and hence, greater following of the game.

A FIFA delegate visited Russia in 2010. It viewed the sites proposed for the new stadia, as well as reviewing the progress made. The final vote was made on Dec 2, 2010 in Zurich. Putin decided to sit out of the voting ceremony in protest of alleged lobbying by the rival bidders. In the first round, Russia received nine of the 22 votes and finished ahead of Spain/Portugal (seven votes). England was eliminated, having only received two votes. In the second round, Russia swept the decision, claiming more than half the votes to be officially declared the hosts of the 2018 World Cup. The final results were Russia (13 votes), Spain/Portugal (seven votes), Belgium/Netherlands (two votes). Qatar won the hosting rights of the 2022 World Cup on the same day.

FIFA claimed that the main criterion for selecting Russia and Qatar as hosts was the fact that these were new pastures for the governing footballing body. No World Cup had ever been held in Eastern Europe or in the Middle East. The votes were in accordance with FIFA’s plans to broaden the game. Putin travelled to Zurich to thank FIFA officials after winning the ballot.

After securing the World Cup, Russia started working on the number of host cities and stadiums. The initial plan was to have 16 venues in 13 cities. Later on, in 2011, it was decided that that the number of stadiums would be reduced to 12, while the number of host cities was reduced to 11. Ten of the 11 host cities lie on the west of the Ural mountain range to reduce travel times, Yekaterinburg being the only exception. It was calculated that almost $10 billion would be required for the entire infrastructure. That figure has gone up to almost $20 billion, thus making it the most expensive football World Cup of all time.

QUALIFYING TEAMS

As of the end of October, 23 teams have qualified for the World Cup. Out of the vacant nine spots, three will be filled by teams qualifying directly from Africa. The results of three groups in the CAF qualifying stages are still not certain yet. For the other six spots, the teams will contest in play-offs.

As of the teams that have qualified, Iceland and Panama will be making their tournament debuts. Egypt will be returning to the global stage after a gap of 28 years. Poland and Saudi Arabia will both be featuring for the first time since 2006.

The World Cup qualifiers saw many superstars stepping up for their countries and taking responsibility. Robert Lewandowski scored a mammoth 16 goals in just 10 games to help Poland top their table. Cristiano Ronaldo wasn’t far behind, scoring 15 goals through the course of the qualifiers. Romelu Lukaku also hit double figures, notching up 11 goals for Belgium. Liverpool stalwart Mohamed Salah top scored in the CAF qualifiers to help Egypt reach the World Cup after a long absence. And who can forget Lionel Messi scoring a hat trick for Argentina in a do-or-die match against Ecuador to send the 2014 finalists on their way to Russia.

Although most of the big names made it through the qualifying round unscathed, there have been some shocks on the cards. Netherlands, semi-finalists in 2014 and runners-up in 2010, failed to make it out of their qualifying round. They finished third in their group behind France and Sweden. France qualified directly for the World Cup while Sweden, level on points with Netherlands but having a far superior goal difference, qualified for the play-offs. Another notable absentee is Chile, the 2015 and 2016 Copa America champions. Chile finished sixth in the South American qualifiers, losing out on a place in the play-offs to Peru on goal difference.

Despite the absence of a few heavyweights, the presence of almost all the big boys and a few new exciting teams promises a cracking World Cup. The chance of a first Messi vs. Ronaldo clash in a World Cup match is still alive. And as we count down the days towards the 14th June starting date, the excitement will only increase.

The writer tweets @tahagoheer

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 26th, 2017

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