Confederations Cup: Russian revolution means warm welcome for Socceroos fans | Kieran Pender
Les Street, a Melbourne-based football historian, was having difficulties entering the Fisht Stadium in Sochi prior to Australia’s clash with Germany on Monday. It was not that the stadium was poorly signposted, or that the ticketing system had malfunctioning. Street was simply proving too popular with the locals.
“Before I could even get into the ground I was interviewed twice by Russian television stations,” says the bemused 38-year-old. “Then I had people stopping me for selfies.”
There have been concerns about a hostile reception for visiting fans at next year’s World Cup in Russia, not least after highly organised hooligans caused ugly scenes at Euro 2016 in France last year.
But Street’s struggle to make his way into the stadium is indicative of Australian fans’ experiences at the 2017 Fifa Confederations Cup. Russians might be stereotyped for their cold exteriors, but they have warmly embraced these visitors from across the globe.
“Obviously the fans were hugely disappointed with Australia’s loss to Germany,” says Aaron Zoanetti, director of the Green and Gold Army fans’ travel group. “But the destination has exceeded expectations. Everyone had perceptions of what Russia would be like, and the reality has been enormously different.”
The local organising committee has also done an impressive job ensuring a mostly painless visit for travelling fans and media. The traditionally burdensome visa process has been eliminated – those with a “Fan ID” enjoy visa-free access to Russian during the Confederations Cup – and a similar measure will be instituted in 2018. Airports have been spruced up with new English-language signage, while stadiums buzz with cheerful volunteers in red jackets waiting to assist visitors.
“As a sports travel organisation, this has been by far the easiest destination in recent memory to organise travel for fans,” Zoanetti says, favourably comparing Russia to Brazil and South Africa. “It is as developed as any European destination, the people are more opened minded than you would expect and although the language barrier is an issue, locals have been very accommodating.”
Yet many fans were disappointed with the atmosphere during Australia’s clash with Germany. The 47,659-seater Fisht Stadium was barely half full, and the reported attendance of 28,605 fans seemed a flashback to creative Soviet-era statistics. The stadium’s location in the expansive and mostly empty former Winter Olympic village, 40km from Sochi itself, did not help. Other games have fared little better – even the tournament opener between hosts Russia and New Zealand in St Petersburg was only at 70% capacity.
“The ticketing system did not provide allocated sections for Australian fans,” says Street, who was one of approximately 250 travelling Socceroos supporters in Sochi. “Everyone was split up, which made the fan experience very disconnected. I was by myself and the nearest fellow Socceroos fan was 50 metres away.”
While a similar lack of segregation could cause real problems next summer when thousands of fans from competing nations will be going to matches and travelling across the country, there were no issues in Sochi where the locals started a Mexican wave after about 10 minutes.
Crowds may improve as the tournament edges towards the knockout rounds, particularly if Russia remain in contention, while local organisers have mooted bussing in children to fill the stands. Although the employment of such tactics should ensure full stadiums at next year’s World Cup, local school kids hardly create the same atmosphere as travelling fans.
Socceroos supporters in St Petersburg ahead of the clash with Cameroon (1am Friday AEST) are desperately hoping Australia qualify for Russia 2018 to justify a return visit. Australia are currently third in their qualifying group, equal on points with Saudi Arabia and one point behind Japan. To avoid a convoluted series of playoffs, Ange Postecoglou’s side will need to draw away against Japan and beat Thailand at home when qualification resumes in late August.
“As a loyal Socceroos supporter I always intend to go to World Cups,” says Sydneysider Joshua Harkin, who has watched the national team in Germany, South Africa, Brazil and Iran. “My time at the Confederations Cup to date has confirmed my desire to return. The procedures are a bit of a pain – going through the Fan ID process, keeping track of your hotel registrations – but the destination and the football make up for it.”
Yet prospective fans face a moral dilemma. Given concerns about the probity of Russia’s bid, the alleged mistreatment of workers during stadium construction and the oppressive political environment, should supporters attend in 2018?
“I do have difficulties with the way the bidding process was conducted, but I feel those issues are above the ordinary fan,” says Harkin. “Ultimately I just want to watch the football.”