Sochi more holiday destination than football venue, with stadium set to fail
SOCHI, Russia -- Nothing is quite as it seems in Sochi. After all, this is the 2014 Winter Olympic city with palm trees on the promenade, where the azure blue Black Sea resembles the Mediterranean on the French Riviera.
It is where the $780 million Fisht Stadium will host Thursday's Confederations Cup semifinal between Germany and Mexico and also four World Cup group games during Russia 2018.
However, beyond the World Cup, Sochi risks becoming a city with some of the most spectacular sporting facilities in the world but nobody to use them.
This is not a football city, yet so much was lavished on Sochi by Vladimir Putin's government in order to stage the 2014 Winter Olympics that it was always going to be invited to the World Cup party.
It is a stunning resort, in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains, but there is no top-flight football club within 100 miles and Krasnodar, a passionate city with two major clubs -- FC Krasnodar and Kuban Krasnodar -- has been overlooked as a World Cup host in order for Sochi to claim a slice of the action.
Sochi, where they wanted a stadium close the beach. Close enough? pic.twitter.com/OuteAD097H- Mark Ogden (@MarkOgden_) June 27, 2017
In terms of legacy, though, it is difficult to envisage football returning to Sochi after the World Cup. Just last week its only club, FC Sochi, announced that it will not compete at any level next season.
FC Sochi are a minnow in Russian football, having finished seventh in the Russian Professional Football League (Zone South) during the 2016-17 season, but they had been due to play in the third division next season.
In the longer term, it was hoped they would become anchor tenants at the 47,000 capacity Fisht Stadium after the World Cup -- despite playing in front of just 6,000 fans when they hosted a league game at the ground in April.
But that deal now appears to be in some doubt following the vague statement issued by the club when announcing its decision to take a year out.
The statement, issued on the club website, said: "Management and coaching staff of FC Sochi apologises to the fans of FC Sochi and all football fans because the club could not meet your expectations and our hopes for the league.
"The club is currently developing a strategy to guide the development team. This does not mean that FC Sochi will cease to exist. Team achievements are modest, we see mistakes in the management of the club, in the composition of players, so we need a perfect team.
"We need to make a break for one year because we want to create and show a further professional football, a completely different level. We need this year to form a new team after the World Cup in 2018 and organize the work of Sochi football club with the new lineup."
How, and where, FC Sochi return to action remains unclear, however.
With so much money invested in the city, not to mention the political capital, the fallout from the World Cup will be tough to manage and it will be incredibly hard to stop the Fisht Stadium becoming another monument to previous excesses.
Recent World Cups have seen eye-catching stadia built at great expense only for them to become unused, or under-used, after the FIFA circus has packed up and gone away.
In South Africa, the stunning Cape Town Stadium at Green Point now hosts concerts and home games for Cape Town City in the Premier Soccer League, but hopes of being used for South Africa rugby games were ended by the Springboks, who instead signed a deal to remain at their historic Newlands Stadium in the city.
In Brazil, the 44,000-capacity Arena de Amazonia in Manaus now stands virtually unused, isolated from the rest of the country due to its location deep within the Amazon.
There are similar concerns that the new arena being built in Saransk, a host city for Russia 2018, will also become ghost stadium after the World Cup. With FC Mordovia Saransk relegated from the Russian Premier League in 2015-16 and then from the second division last season, there will be no top flight tenant to take residence in 2018.
Sochi is in the same boat. The stadium is 30km (18 miles) from the centre of town, which will provide a problem for regular travelling fans, but there is the sense that the locals do not care enough about football to worry about the stadium falling into disuse anyway.
The town's main problem may be the fact that it is a holiday resort, with most visitors in and around the stadium being families with children.
"Lots of people come here, many like football," Anastasia, a manager at one of Sochi's biggest hotels, told ESPN FC. "But the people in Sochi will like the teams in Krasnodar or Rostov. Not many people know about FC Sochi or have a passion for them."
It is sad for a ground in such a beautiful location, but it is more than likely that the Fisht Stadium is added to the list of growing expensive failures when the World Cup party is over next summer.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_