Enticing Ekaterinburg Arena stands out from the rest
We land on a cold, wet and windy day in Ekaterinburg; the temperature, the air crew tell us, is 12 degrees above Celsius - implying that usually it's below and we should be lucky with what we get. My plane is largely filled with Egyptians and Uruguayans; they break the language barrier to swap thoughts and predictions, and share their hatred for Sergio Ramos.
My task, on landing, is to find more of them and to visit the Ekaterinburg Arena, the stadium that will host Friday's match. I fail in the first - it's so chilly that Egyptians and Uruguayans have chosen wisely to stay indoors. Hopefully the bonding continues.
The stadium, though, makes up for that disappointment. Ekaterinburg Arena made headlines long before the World Cup began, for all the wrong reasons. The temporary north and south stands jut out of the rest of the structure, almost like wings; the extra seats will bring the stadium's capacity to World Cup standards. Sao Paulo's Corinthians Stadium did the same, too, in 2014, but it didn't seem to stick out so much.
It looks odd, but that isn't the oddest bit about the stadium. The arena is essentially a new structure built inside the old one - rather, built within the columns and colonnades of the Stalin-era stadium it replaced. It takes retro-fitting to another level. So you have the main gate, evoking Hitler's grand Olympic Stadium in Berlin, in front of the very modern steel and whatever else they use. With a bit of imagination - okay, with a lot of it - you could sense maybe the two do blend in.
But if you look beyond the dissonance, and observe the colonnade itself, another story comes into play. The six figures seem from a distance to be the typical Grecian athletes playing their Olympian sport but look closer and you see, from left: Milling machine operator, skier, marksman, footballer, athlete carrying a torch and steel foundry worker. All key elements of the Soviet state - there was a strong emphasis on sport and physical fitness (though sadly the latter was not part of the Communist influence on India). It's also homage to the multi-sport identity of the ground, which began life as a velodrome and athletics track. Football and ice-skating were added to that repertoire, but it's very likely that the structural changes will keep this as a football-only ground in future.
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Walking around the area, even with all the merchandising and franchising and logos in place, you still get an idea of what it used to be. In fact, that's an important part of the decision to retain this stadium as the World Cup venue and not build another outside the city. After the vast scale and national-stadium vibe of the Luzhniki, the Ekaterinburg Arena is smaller, almost intimate, like a local ground.
The neighbourhood was known for its medical facilities - it was called a medi-village; in fact the stadium complex houses the Ural State medical institute. Most establishments remain - though thankfully, for the sake of hungry journalists and fans, some have been replaced by cafes and restaurants. It's a very pleasant 20-minute walk from the Metro to the ground, almost like through a tree-filled residential neighbourhood, with surprising bits of quirk that keep cropping up: a bench in the shape of a Soviet star, a building whose entire facade is multi-coloured glass.
There's no industrial grind, no dodgy alleys, no endless suburban train rides. That's probably the most surprising part of the stadium - Ekaterinburg was founded as an industrial town, to take advantage of the huge mineral resources in Siberia. Enticing Ekaterinburg. As long as the temperature stays twelve above.