Sochi’s World Cup stadium is impressive, but hasn’t hosted a game in nearly a year. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Sochi’s empty stadium reflects Russian sports struggles

SOCHI, Russia — Sochi’s World Cup stadium is a spectacular, sweeping structure on the Black Sea coast, but few locals have seen inside. In fact, the Fisht Olympic Stadium hasn’t hosted a game in nearly a year.

When Portugal takes on Spain on June 15, it will be the first match there since June 29, 2017, when Germany beat Mexico 4-1 in the Confederations Cup.

Sochi didn’t even field a professional team this season and is a graveyard for clubs, with no fewer than six failed attempts to run a team there in the last 15 years. Meager incomes from ticket sales and TV rights mean most Russian clubs must beg for funding from the government or risk going under.

“It’s a big tragedy for Sochi, for many Russian cities without a football club,” says youth coach Vladimir Lushin of the Zhemchuzhina Sochi club, which played in the Russian top flight in the 1990s but can no longer afford to run a pro team. “The children must have something to aspire to when they do sports.”

Sochi hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics but is struggling to put that legacy to good use.

While the Olympic infrastructure has attracted Russian tourists for its beaches in summer and ski slopes in winter, the Olympic winter sports facilities haven’t hosted any international events in the last 12 months.

Sochi’s 48,000-seat Fisht Olympic Stadium wasn’t built as a sports venue, just to host opening and closing ceremonies. It has held just seven football matchesto date, only one with a local team, when FC Sochi played a third-tier league game in front of just 6,000 fans last year, shortly before withdrawing from the league.

Now there’s another attempt to bring soccer back to Sochi.

The billionaire Boris Rotenberg, a childhood judo partner of President Vladimir Putin, wants to relocate his Dynamo St. Petersburg team to Sochi in time for the new season in the Russian second tier.

That could meet with an angry reaction in both St. Petersburg and Sochi, where locals told The Associated Press they’d find it hard to back a team imported from the other side of the country.

It’s also likely to lose money. The Fisht stadium is more than an hour’s travel from the centre of Sochi, and the Russian second tier is full of unprofitable teams. Before Rotenberg took over in 2015, Dynamo suffered repeated financial collapses, name changes and a period in the amateur leagues, despite being the second-biggest club in Russia’s second-biggest city.

Some Russians have a siege mentality, like tourist Roman Streltsov, touring the Olympic park near the Fisht stadium.

“Our country’s prestige is at stake. The country’s prestige must be boosted,” he said. “Especially now that the political situation is so that we’re being pressured from everywhere and there are sanctions everywhere. We must answer it somehow.”

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