From 14 June to 15 July, the Russian Federation will play host to the 2018 FIFA World Cup. It represents a landmark moment for international football: the first time in history that the tournament has been staged in eastern Europe.
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From the moment Russia was confirmed as host way back in December 2010, the country has worked tirelessly to prepare for the tournament. Besides renovating stadiums and training facilities across the country, it has undertaken major infrastructural work in each of the host cities to ensure they meet FIFA standards. It is safe to say that the Russian Federation is now fully ready for the World Cup.
A total of 32 national teams will take part in the tournament, 14 of them from Europe. The draw for the group stage of the finals was held at the Kremlin Palace in Moscow back in December, in the presence of a host of football legends including Pelé, Diego Maradona, Ronaldo, Cafu, Gordon Banks, Fabio Cannavaro, Carles Puyol, Diego Forlán, Laurent Blanc and Gary Lineker. The ceremony was officially launched by President Vladimir Putin and FIFA President Gianni Infantino.
During the ceremony, Miroslav Klose, a World Cup winner with Germany in 2014 when he finished as the tournament's top scorer, was on hand to unveil the coveted trophy, for which the 32 teams will compete this summer. Over the last eight months, hundreds of thousands of football fans around the world have had the opportunity to get a close look at the trophy themselves thanks to the World Cup trophy tour, which has seen it travel the length and breadth of Russia, and visit 51 other nations on six continents, making it the biggest event of its kind in the tournament's history. Ticket sales for the World Cup got under way on 14 September last year. All fans attending matches will receive a fan passport (fan ID) when they buy their ticket. Meanwhile, fans without tickets will still be able to enjoy the matches on the giant screens at one of 11 fan festival sites in the host cities.
Last autumn, adidas unveiled the official ball for the 2018 World Cup, the Telstar 18. Replicas of the official ball, in classic black and white, are among the many items of licensed merchandise available for purchase at the official World Cup stores in the host cities. Also certain to be a popular souvenir will be the official 2018 World Cup mascot, a wolf called Zabivaka.
Helping to ensure the success of the event will be a 15,000-strong team of volunteers. Applications reached a record high, with some 177,000 people in 190 different countries applying for roles. Many of those recruited have already been put through their paces at the FIFA Confederations Cup last year.
Five host clusters
Matches will be held in 12 stadiums in 11 cities. Reflecting the country's vast geographical expanse, spanning 11 time zones in all, the host cities were divided into five clusters: Central (Moscow), North (St Petersburg and Kaliningrad), South (Sochi and Rostov-on-Don), Volga (Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Kazan, Saransk and Volgograd) and Urals (Ekaterinburg).
Two of the venues are located in the capital, which will host both the opening match and the final. Specifically, that honour will go to Luzhniki Stadium, the country's largest football stadium. It is certainly no stranger to staging iconic sporting events, having played host to the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1980 Summer Olympic Games as well as the UEFA Cup final in 1999 and most recently the UEFA Champions League final in 2008.
In 2013, the stadium was closed for major renovation work to prepare it for the World Cup. That work was completed last year and the stadium opened its doors again for a prestigious friendly between Russia and Argentina attended by 78,750 spectators.
"Luzhniki Stadium has really changed," commented Russian national team coach Stanislav Cherchesov after that match. "All the new stadiums in our country are magnificent, including Luzhniki." In addition to the opening match, between Russia and Saudi Arabia, and the final, Luzhniki will host three other group stage games as well as a round of 16 match and one of the two semi-finals.
The other venue in the capital is Spartak Stadium, home to the club of the same name. This newly built arena opened in 2014 with a capacity of 45,000 and was one of four stadiums to hold matches during the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup. This summer Spartak Stadium will welcome four group stage games and one of the round of 16 matches.
Another venue that played a prominent role during the Confederations Cup, hosting the opening game and the final, was the St Petersburg Stadium. Located on the Baltic city's Krestovskiy Island, it is home to FC Zenit and, with a capacity of 67,000, will be the second-largest venue at the World Cup. It is scheduled to stage no fewer than seven matches, including the third-place game. Two other World Cup venues were also put to the test during the Confederations Cup: Kazan Arena in the city of the same name, which is home to FC Rubin, and Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi – which was the main venue for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Another of the venues, the Volgograd Arena, was thrust into the limelight on 9 May when it held the Russian Cup final. The other six World Cup venues – in Kaliningrad, Samara, Ekaterinburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Saransk and Rostov-on-Don – all have regular experience hosting top-level fixtures in the Russian leagues. Needless to say, all of the stadiums and host cities are raring to go and looking forward to welcoming visitors from near and far to this summer's football extravaganza.
This article originally appeared in UEFA Direct 178