Portuguese Cristiano Ronaldo (R) during Hungary vs. Portugal football match 图/Istock/szirtesi

Russia, the largest country in the world by area, has never hosted a football World Cup but that will all change in June and July when the showpiece event is held across 11 cities. Given the scale of the nation, organizers have been careful to make sure traveling distances for teams and fans are limited, meaning Yekaterinburg is the most easterly venue with Siberia missing out.

While some host cities such as Samara and Rostov on Don are not normally on the tourist map, many of the big games take place in the world famous cities of Moscow and St Petersburg – offering the perfect opportunity for visitors to combine football with culture.

Russia has not always been seen as a desirable place to visit for football. There have been problems with hooliganism and supporter racism while the recent scandal involving Russian doping at the Olympics has not helped the nation’s cause. But Russian officials have been working hard to improve the country’s sporting image. Last year a World Cup dress rehearsal tournament – the Confederations Cup – took place in Russia with four World Cup venues put to the test. The event was internationally viewed as a success with few of the pitfalls that had been feared.

Michael Schmidt attended the Confed Cup as a fan of Germany and expects the World Cup to prove any doubters wrong. “There is always nervousness before a big event but I got the impression the quiet Russians are secretly proud about hosting the World Cup and will be keen to put on a good show,” he told Hi Europe. “They have been improving their ability to cope with tourists. The fact it is maybe not a traditional tourist place actually made my visit far more exciting.”

FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 Local Organizing Committee

Wide open

On the field, the Russia World Cup is one of the most wide open in years. Germany are the defending champions having won the last World Cup in Brazil four years ago but retaining the title is fiendishly difficult with only Italy (1934 and 1938) and Brazil (1958 and 1962) having managed it.

Bookmakers’ favorites Brazil are the record five-times winners and can never be discounted, especially with the world’s most expensive player Neymar in their ranks. He cost a whopping 222 million euros (1.7 billion Chinese yuan) when he joined club side Paris Saint Germain from Barcelona last year. But Brazil´s 7-1 drubbing by Germany in the semi-finals in 2014 have scarred the Brazilian psyche and how they will react this time is unknown.

France arguably have the best team on paper while European champions Portugal will need a lot of luck to win the World crown as well, even with world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo leading their team. His great rival Lionel Messi will hope Argentina can go one better than 2014 when they lost the final to Germany 1-0.

图/ Istock-Belikart

Spain, the 2010 winners, are not the force of old but still have a chance while Belgium are almost every pundit’s outside tip among the 32 teams.

Hosts Russia have never come close to winning the World Cup, either as the Soviet Union or Russia, and they are highly unlikely to produce a miracle in June and July. But the presence of a host nation at a World Cup is important because it enthuses the home fans and gives the tournament energy. All neutral fans hope Russia at least get to the second round to give the event zip and keep the host nation engaged.

Russia debuted at the World Cup in 1958 as the Soviet Union where they reached the quarter-finals. The captain of that team was Nikita Simonyan. Now 91, he is an ambassador for the 2018 World Cup. "Germany has a huge advantage in their discipline, fighting spirit and character, but all 32 teams will try to show these qualities," he said in a statement from organizers. "In any case, I hope…the fans who come to our country are happy."

FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 Local Organizing Committee

Fewer Visitors, More Space

Given the size of the country, visa issues and some perceived language difficulties, the number of foreign visitors to Russia is expected to be significantly lower than for other recent World Cups held in Europe (Germany 2006 and France 1998 for example). But on the plus size, that means tourists who do make the trip will find match tickets, hotels and transport easier to come by. Usually fans have to plan years in advance but this World Cup will be different.

Moscow will be most visitors’ first port of call, mainly because most international flights land there but also because it is the capital city and the only city which has two stadiums holding World Cup matches. The 81,000-seater Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, an old Soviet arena refurbished for the World Cup, is the biggest of the tournament and will host the opening game between Russian and Saudi Arabia on June 14 and the final on July 15 as well as other matches.

Moscow’s Spartak Stadium holds 45,000 and will be used for some group matches and a last 16 game. Few cities in the world are big enough to have two World Cup stadiums but with a population of over 11 million, Moscow can pull it off.

I have been to the Russian capital and found it a truly beguiling place. It has so much history with the vast Kremlin government complex and cavernous St Basil’s Cathedral definitely worth visiting. It feels so different to the rest of Europe. Despite the huge numbers of people, I felt very relaxed and calm there. I never felt like I was rushed.

FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 Local Organizing Committee

There were language challenges, given English is not widely spoken, but there were plenty of buffet restaurants where I could get food and authorities have made sure more public servants such as police and transport workers have learnt other languages to help visitors during the World Cup.

I also went to St Petersburg, just a two-hour train trip from Moscow, and found the former capital very different. It feels much more European, especially because of the architecture of great buildings such as the Hermitage Museum. It is also on the water and parts such as the Peter and Paul fortress are picturesque. It has a new landmark now - the spaceship-like Krestovsky or St Petersburg Stadium, which is the second biggest venue for the World Cup at 68,000 seats. It will host the first semi-final on July 10 and the third place play-off on July 14 among other games.

I also went to St Petersburg, just a two-hour train trip from Moscow, and found the former capital very different. It feels much more European, especially because of the architecture of great buildings such as the Hermitage Museum. It is also on the water and parts such as the Peter and Paul fortress are picturesque. It has a new landmark now - the spaceship-like Krestovsky or St Petersburg Stadium, which is the second biggest venue for the World Cup at 68,000 seats. It will host the first semi-final on July 10 and the third place play-off on July 14 among other games.

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