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Richard van Poortvliet: Russian revolution will be worth the wait

I remember coming across the Kirov stadium in St. Petersburg for the first time after browsing through Simon Inglis’ informative book, ‘Football Grounds of Europe,’ when I was yet to reach my teens. I was in awe of the sheer size of the arena, which was a true ‘socialist superbowl’, holding at its peak, more than 100,000 fans.

The stadium took 18 years to complete, after construction was halted because of the Second World War, when the city of Leningrad was blockaded for almost 900 days. However, over time the stadium, which was built into an earth mound, fell into disrepair and was eventually demolished in 2006, just a few months after Zenit had played a farewell game at the ground against Dynamo Moscow, which attracted over 40,000 supporters.

While the new stadium in its place will not take 18 years to build, when it is finally completed in 2016, it will have been a decade in the making. The plans look fantastic, but at the moment, cranes are littered around the playing surface, while the retractable roof structure is yet to be added.

To get a closer look at the arena is no easy task and I was lucky enough to have been invited on a specially arranged press tour to see the stadium for myself. The view right at the top of the stadium is quite stunning. Located on ‘Krestovsky Island’, the structure overlooks the Gulf of Finland, while there is a great view of the historical centre of the city as well. However, it is still hard to imagine that in two and a half years, this stadium will finally see its first football match.

The statistics surrounding the construction of the arena are equally interesting, with 10 times more concrete being needed than in comparison to the building of the Empire State Building, while the total area of the roof, which is retractable, will be twice as large as Red Square. The stadium will seat 68,000 spectators, but will cost just shy of $1 billion.

The exact cost is 34.9 billion roubles, which is $971 million. In comparison Wembley cost in the region of $1.5 billion, while the New Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey came in at $1.7 billion dollars. The vice governor of St. Petersburg, Marat Oganesyan has stated, “the cost of the stadium will not rise by a kopek.”

The cost of the stadium as well as its completion date have altered numerous times, since plans for the new ground were drawn up in 2006. Optimistically, those behind the project believed that they could deliver the stadium in just over two years and it would be ready in 2009. However, this was destined for failure from the very start and was completely unrealistic given the difficulty of constructing such a stadium.

The renowned Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa, was offered the project with his spaceship design, which captivated the imagination of those offering the tender. However, Kurokawa died shortly after presenting the concept, which set the project back considerably as he was to be the driving force to get such a complex stadium built. The original plans were also made before Russia won the right to host the 2018 World Cup in December 2010, which meant that a number of changes had to be made to the design in order to meet standards set by FIFA.

This was compounded by uncertainty over who would cover the costs of the project, which were split between Gazprom and the St. Petersburg City Government. When asked about the delays to the stadium, the captain of Zenit St. Petersburg, Nicolas Lombaerts said: “It takes a long time to build a stadium. The problem here is not with Gazprom, but with the St. Petersburg administration. If Gazprom were in charge of the construction, we would already be playing in one of the most modern stadiums in Europe.”

This uncertainty also pushed the completion date of the stadium back considerably. In short, the first few years of trying to get the stadium built were a mess. The governor of St. Petersburg, Georgy Poltavchenko summed this up brilliantly in December 2013 when he stated: “In the last half a year, we have managed to achieve more than in the last four years. We will meet our deadlines.”

Despite these set backs, it seems as though the project is finally back on track. The bowl of the stadium is almost complete and now the difficult task of trying to get the roof fitted can begin. It is difficult to get an idea of just how complex this scheme is, without actually visiting the site itself. The stadium is almost unique in that it that it has both a retractable roof and pitch as well as having a capacity of almost 70,000. No project similar to this has ever been attempted in Russia, which has meant those in charge of the plans have been learning and adapting their previous experiences as the development progresses.

The Zenit Arena has attracted critics within Russia, who laugh at how the completion date is constantly being pushed back. However, there is now renewed confidence that the latest date of June 2016 will be met. One just has to look back at the fiasco involving the construction of Wembley Stadium to realize that these problems are not just unique to St. Petersburg, with the ground being over budget and late in being completed. Since it was completed in 2007, there have been few complaints, while English football now has one of the world’s truly great football stadiums.

I am fairly sure that when the Confederations Cup gets underway, or if Zenit St. Petersburg were to play a big Champions League match in the stadium in the autumn of 2016, all the talk about the late delivery of the ground and its rising costs will be forgotten. The stadium will also have new transport links, which will help infrastructure within the city. Being so modern, it will also help to attract a completely new generation of football fans. One just has to look at the impact the Donbass Arena in Donetsk has had in achieving this.

Good things come to those who wait. The people of St. Petersburg have certainly spent a lot of time waiting, but cold wintery evenings at the Petrovski Stadium, where Zenit currently play their home games will soon be forgotten, as supporters of the club can soon look forward to watching games in comfort, even when the temperature is well below zero outside, in one of the world’s most modern stadiums.

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