Richard van Poortvliet: Build it and they will come, hopefully

It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon and I am walking through the Olympic Park in Sochi. There maybe a Federation Cup tennis game taking place, but there is still an eerie silence around the vast complex. The weather is stunning, the facilities are amazing, and just a stones throw away from the Adler Arena, which is hosting the tennis match between Russia and Argentina, is the ‘Fisht’ Arena, which held the opening and closing ceremonies at the Winter Olympics and Paralympics.

It is an impressive stadium. I had the pleasure to be at the opening ceremony at the Winter Olympics and the atmosphere was sensational. The arena will of course hold matches at the 2018 World Cup and the Confederations Cup in 2017. However, what will the stadium be used for until then?

“The Stadium will be handed over to the Krasnodar Region and they have everything at their disposal which abides to the standards set by FIFA. The stadium will soon have a football club. We will return the traditions of Sochi’s Zhemchuzhina,” Russian sports minister Valery Mutko stated to the Internet agency ITAR-TASS.

FC Zhemchuzhina, which means pearl in Russia, were founded in 1991. From 1993 to 1999, they played in the Russian First Division, a level down from the Russian Premier League. In 2003, the club disbanded, only to be reformed four years later. Despite a large publicity campaign last time around, the team were unable to gain promotion to the country’s top flight, and with dwindling crowds and a lack of sponsors, they were eventually forced out of business again.

It is one thing to create a football club; it is another to get supporters going through the turnstiles. FC Moscow is an excellent example. They were formed in 2004 by the Moscow government, gaining the nickname of ‘The Citizens’, however, very few ‘citizens’ would actually attend matches, despite the team being one of the most successful in 2007 and 2008.

There lies one of the biggest problems currently facing Russian football; attracting a new generation of fans to turn up to stadiums and watch football matches. Last season, just 2.85 million fans turned up to watch games in the Russian Premier League. Compare this to the 4.4 million who attended games in League 2 in England, which is the fourth tier of football in that country. A recent study by UEFA found that Russia was in 11th place in Europe in terms of average attendance. The league has an average gate of just over 13,000. In comparison, the German Bundesliga attracts over 42,000 and the English Premier League 35,000. These figures would likely be even higher if the stadiums in these countries could hold more spectators.

Former CSKA Moscow head coach, Valery Gazzaev believes success on the pitch will help to increase interest in the game.

“The performances of the national team and Russian clubs playing in Europe needs to improve. This is fundamental and without it there won’t be supporters, success, or financial security,” he said.

However I believe the problems run much deeper in Russia than just success on the pitch, as there are a number of factors why supporters are not willing to attend football matches.

The most obvious point is the standard of stadia in the country and the behaviour of fans within the grounds. This puts off a number of potential fans from ever thinking of attending a match. This is a problem that will hopefully change in the next few years. One only has to look at the impact that the 1990 World Cup had on revolutionising football in Italy. Before the competition, the game in that country suffered from many of the problems that are currently facing Russia, such as dilapidated stadia and problems with hooliganism. However, steps were made to solve both issues and in just a few years, it became popular for families to attend football matches.

A popular argument when trying to pinpoint the lack of interest in Russian football is that there is a general apathy towards the game. Teams in Moscow perhaps face the biggest problem in trying to attract fans as they face competition from so many different competing interests. Rather than going to watch a football game, locals would apparently much rather go to the park or visit museums. Work needs to be done to change attitudes and habits, after all major cities like Rome and London are still able to attract tens of thousands of fans to football grounds, despite having as many, if not more attractions than Moscow.

The responsibility is with the clubs to try and make football more amenable to the public. Following Euro 2008, there was a boom in interest towards the sport. A qualifying match with Azerbaijan in 2009 attracted over 60,000 spectators, which was almost unheard of in Russia. However, this popularity did not descend to club level, as with a few exceptions like St. Petersburg and Samara, stadiums remained half full at best.

Football clubs in Russia could do well to look at the success that ice hockey clubs have had in certain parts of the country. One only has to look at teams in Siberia, who are able to sell out most home games. Of course cities like Ufa and Magnitogorsk do not have the same number of attractions that Moscow does, but the clubs have built new comfortable arenas and introduced ticketing schemes to get fans to attend matches.

The television deal that was signed last year with the Russian clubs also does not help the growth of the game. Under the agreement, each match is screened live and at different times. Therefore fans of a team never know in advance when their team is going to play. The days of a team playing every Saturday at three in the afternoon are long gone. For example, CSKA Moscow could play a home match on a Friday night but two weeks later their next home game could be on a Monday evening.

The World Cup in 2018 will obviously have a massive impact in helping to make the football more popular in the country. However, in the mean time, the clubs and the Russian Football Union need to do more to spread the appeal of the game. This though could be easier said than done.

Richard van Poortvliet is a sport presenter and correspondent at Russia Today, based in Moscow.