DESPITE recent political wranglings over Russia, the CEO of the 2018 World Cup, Alexey Sorokin, believes the competition changed the image of his country.
Speaking at the World Football Summit in Madrid, Sorokin said the World Cup was an economic and social success. “Football has a unifying power,” he said. “And the World Cup is a great remedy for every football sickness.”
He was, of course, referring to the reputation Russia had for racism and hooliganism at its football matches and the trouble in France in 2016 at the European Championship. “The hooliganism was greatly exaggerated,” he insisted. “But thanks to excellent cooperation with the police, problems were prevented.”
Sorokin pointed to the FAN ID system implemented for the World Cup as a huge success and added that anyone in possession of an ID could use it as an entry visa to Russia for the remainder of 2018.
He added the World Cup set a precedent for “universal tolerance” and that the atmosphere at games was “exceptional”.
“We gave a lot of assurances and made a lot promises and it is great to talk about something that was very successful,” said Sorokin.
The statistics would appear to underline Sorokin’s upbeat message. Total attendances exceeded expectations although combined gates of just over three million was the lowest since 2002’s 2.7 million. The average crowd per game of 47,371 was also the lowest since the Japan/Korea hosted competition. That said, pre-tournament events, negative publicity and a deteriorating relationship between Russia and the west undoubtedly affected the decision-making process of many fans.
Sorkin said that stadium occupancy of 98% “surprised us a lot” along with the broad geographical distribution of match tickets. Interestingly, countries like USA and China, neither of whom qualified, dominated ticket sales. Far lower numbers came from nations that normally provided healthy support for the World Cup. “We always considered we were part of Europe, but the best support for the World Cup came from outside our own continent.”
Although fans from some countries were probably deterred by the political climate, Russia still had more tourists than ever before, in excess of one million during the World Cup period. According to TASS, there were around five million visitors to the World Cup cities during the World Cup, and FIFA said over seven million people attended the FanFests. England, however, had far fewer spectators at the World Cup than in previous years.
Sorokin added that economically, Russia had benefitted from the creation of 200,000 new jobs each year during the run-up to the World Cup, and the event had contributed 1% to Russian GDP. Most expect the affect to be short-lived, however, as the 2018 World Cup was the most expensive in history, costing some € 14 billion to stage.
There was little doubt that Russia 2018 will go down in history one of the best World Cups of recent times and the host nation even performed better than its very low ranking suggested. “We never truly expected to make it through to the quarter finals,” admitted Sorokin. “We are proud of our team.”
With plenty of excitement, good crowds and the uplifting performance of Russia, even the most sceptical commentators had to concede that the “feel good factor” returned to the World Cup. “We will be analysing 2018 for some years – what it did for Russia and how it has changed the perception of our country,” beamed Sorokin.