Kazan can improve perceptions about Russia, stake claim to sport supremacy
KAZAN, Russia -- "Maybe some people will frown to hear this," Vladimir Leonov told a small gathering of reporters. "But Kazan is seen as the sporting capital of Russia."
Brows may well furrow in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but when Cristiano Ronaldo and Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez step out at Kazan Arena on Sunday, it will be a new feather in the cap of a city whose ambitions include the hosting of a future Olympic Games.
The spotlight will be firmly on Kazan, especially in the light of rumours surrounding Ronaldo's club future, but nobody is blinking. Leonov, the minister of youth affairs and sport for Russia's Republic of Tatarstan, cuts a self-assured figure and reflects the general feeling in a city that appears deeply comfortable in its own skin.
Leonov believes Kazan is ready for both the Confederations Cup and next year's World Cup; it is a narrative far removed from the standard pre-tournament concerns about missed deadlines and infrastructural glitches as well as more serious questions about workers' treatment, none of which have escaped Russia's preparations. The country has problems, but Kazan, in this context, could not be further removed from them.
Much of Kazan's sporting confidence comes from the legacy of the 2013 Summer Universiade, effectively a student Olympics. Leonov's words come from inside Kazan Tennis Academy, which is Russia's largest such complex. Thirty-six new venues were built for the event four years ago, and as you move between the vast Aquatics Palace -- which held the world championships in 2015 -- and its gymnastics equivalent, via a range of other gleaming arenas, it is hard not to be impressed.
Kazan's quality and variety of sporting facilities outdo most cities; the Olympic goal may not be all that far-fetched. The majority of them can be used by the public, among whom grassroots participation is high. There are around 200,000 students in Kazan; it gives the place a vibrant, modern feel that is not always repeated elsewhere in the country.
How many of them turn out to see Ronaldo in the flesh is another matter, and perhaps the biggest cloud hanging over Kazan's current claim to sporting supremacy. A giant mural of the Portugal striker's face has appeared on the side of a building near the team hotel, but tickets for this Confederations Cup have not sold well across the board -- a fact borne out by the gaps in the St. Petersburg crowd at the host nation's opening-day win over New Zealand -- even if it should not be much to ask for the state-of-the-art, 45,000-seater Kazan Arena to be something resembling full when it receives one of the world's all-time greats.
Only 23,000 tickets had been sold on Thursday though, and when pressed, Leonov said he believed the stadium would be 70 percent full on Sunday. That is probably on the rosy side, although media reports here suggest that a number of free tickets have been handed out to local authority employees -- including 2,000 to those working for the emergency services ministry.
"After the first day, word of mouth will make for better ticket sales," Leonov predicted. It would be an embarrassment if that was not the case by the time Russia play Mexico here in a potentially decisive Group A game next Saturday, although it is hard to find too many people around the city who will openly enthuse about the national team. That may owe something to the strong sense of regional identity within Tatarstan, a well-off republic that has a high level of independence from central government in Moscow and holds its distinctness dear.
That is evident on the briefest of strolls around the city. It is hard to shake off the thought that while Russia may not be the ideal World Cup host country for everybody, Kazan might be the ideal World Cup host city. Its architecture, cupolas nestling alongside minarets in its World Heritage-listed Kremlin while Soviet-era curiosities such as a UFO-shaped circus building sit nearby, is stunning and represents the city's cultural mix. It has a roughly even Muslim-Christian split and the coexistence is peaceful, the joints seamless. There is a relaxed, prosperous atmosphere and visitors have been welcomed warmly.
Not that there have been especially many yet. Mexico, usually backed in large numbers, are unlikely to be followed by more than 500 fans here, and even that may be optimistic. It is a long journey, 12 hours by train east of Moscow or one-and-a-half by plane, and the temptation to save up for next summer instead is understandable. Portugal supporters have been thin on the ground, too, meaning that Kazan's numerous enthusiastic volunteers, dotted throughout the city centre, have been largely redundant so far. The facilities and infrastructure may therefore not be fully stress-tested, but the early impressions are positive. Kazan appears ready.
Now it has to prove Leonov correct. "We have the saying 'seeing is believing,'" he said at that huddle inside the tennis centre. Should Kazan pull off a flawless Confederations Cup that it is well placed to achieve, it might serve the dual purpose of improving perceptions about Russia's accessibility on a national level while confirming its own claim to sporting supremacy.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.