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Official Review by Andrew Flint, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
With the 2018 World Cup fast approaching, Russia is rushing to complete the construction of the stadia that will host matches with varying degrees of success. Kaliningrad is set to be the westernmost location nestled in the enclave between Latvia, Poland and the Baltic Sea but the only professional club is struggling to survive in the second tier of Russian football, and many are protesting at the potential waste of investment in a stadium that will be woefully underused. Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale Ekaterinburg will be the easternmost host city, and the historic Centralniy Stadium is progressing well after suffering some early hiccups involving misuse of funds by the construction company contracted to the job.
Ural Sverdlovskaya Oblast are the resident club and have had to relocate to their old training ground in the meantime. Rebranded as the SKB Bank Arena, it is a simple but smart ground with one covered main stand leaving the main supporter groups exposed to the sometimes harsh elements, and lies in the shadow of their magnificent indoor training centre, a facility that is essential over the winter months. It holds 10,000 spectators - the smallest venue in the Russian top flight - but also features a rare natural grass pitch and two impressive jumbo screen scoreboards.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Sustenance is low on the priorities of services at the venue, largely due to the fact that it is not designed as a long term stadium solution. Renovation work has focused on the main stand and the surrounding concourse, but concession stands are little more than temporary sheds behind one end. Cans of soda are readily available for around $1 by 2016 exchange rates, as well as basic chocolate bars and bags of chips for the same price.
Tea and coffee are extremely popular given the sometimes freezing temperatures, and are on sale for just under $1 from the stalls, but queues can be extremely long at half time if the attendance is above average. Opposite the main stand is the largest section, but there are no stalls to serve customers directly behind the seating area, so fans have to make their way around to the other side of the stadium area.
The stands are rarely actually full, which diminishes the effect of the fans who are here. In the summer months, predictably, it is a different story, especially if a major team like Zenit St Petersburg or CSKA Moscow comes to town, but during the winter and spring months it is lucky to find the stadium half full. Given the proximity of the stands to the pitch itself - there is no athletics track ringing the pitch like some venues in Russia - it is almost a shame that the compact design is not put to better use by full capacity crowds. The open plan layout is another minus towards building atmosphere on matchdays with all four corners open and minimal covering, leaving the little sound to drift outwards instead of echoing around.
There is virtually no violent animosity amongst the crowd on matchdays, with a high police presence and lack of visiting fans due to the enormous distances teams have to travel to Ekaterinburg. As well as being the easternmost World Cup host city in 2018, it is also the easternmost city hosting a Premier League side. In a crowd of 5,000-6,000, there are typically about 100 or 200 away fans, and as a result there is less interaction between opposing sets of fans, whether vocally or physically.
The SKB Bank Arena is located to the northwest of the city centre in the industrial area known as 'UralMash' - which was also a former name of the team itself. It is directly surrounded by residential blocks and supermarkets, and is five minutes walk away from a small wooded area with really tall fir trees, which offer a pleasant backdrop to the generic streets. It is not an area one would choose to visit as a tourist as there is nothing of cultural interest around the stadium, and there are no hotels in the immediate vicinity, but it isn't an unpleasant environment.
Many of the walls at the end of apartment blocks near the stadium are covered in graffiti linked to ultra groups and memorials to former players, while there is a wide open square with monuments to heroes from the Second World War next to the adjacent indoor training centre where fans mingle. There are no buildings over here or four stories for at least a mile in all directions, so there is a lot of light and some open spaces too.
Fans in Russia are usually very dedicated, since there is a huge following for foreign leagues on television and on the internet, meaning those that make the effort to attend matches in person have a real passion for their team. A tradition that is common throughout the league is for groups to chant responses to each other from opposite ends of the ground, and the hardcore fans to the left of the main stand lead this routine. Most fans are aligned to a fan group with semi-official merchandise and banners filled with slogans in English, and they are imaginative and rousing with their renditions.
There is a healthy respect for each other, opposing fans and even the authorities in the ground, with matches against nearest rivals Amkar Perm producing the only reported incidents of aggression. The club mascot is a wild orange and black bumblebee who waves at the children in the main stand, where more seasoned supporters even chat with the press corps who are positioned at the top of the narrow stand in an open area. Apart from the mascot there is little overall entertainment. Fans of all ages only make the journey for one thing, and that's the sport itself.
If you want to take transport right to the ground itself your only option is to take a taxi, but most supporters prefer to walk down the lengthy tree-lined boulevard Ulitsa Kirovgradskaya. This is most easily reached by taking a rickety old electric metro to the nearest major intersection with Ulitsa Mashinostroitelei, with services running every few minutes for about 20 cents from the centre. Police are stationed along the mile-long stretch that leads to the corner of the complex containing the stadium, with most fans gathering in the pedestrian area in the middle and taking the pleasant journey on foot.
Taxis will take you from the main train station, which lies on the Trans-Siberian Railway and carries most fans from out of the city, for a reasonable price somewhere around $3. The route is very simple to drive too with one dual carriageway taking you from the station almost all the way to the intersection of Kirovgradskaya and Mashinostroitelei in about five minutes.
Ticket prices range from $6 in the stand behind the goal where the main fan groups congregate to $12 in the main stand on the halfway line. Compared to Zenit St Petersburg, who offer the cheapest seats at over $20, this is extremely good value, particularly during the 2015-2016 campaign as the team is performing well above expectations in mid table, and has been involved in more goals in home matches than any other side. The standard of play does vary depending on the opponent, as there is a huge gulf in class between the top and bottom of the Russian Premier League, but for such a minimal outlay it is fantastic value.
The comfort in the stands is average without offering a lot of exceptional features, but it is a newly refurbished facility that only opened in 2015 so it is very clean and well maintained. If you consider matchday entertainment part of the deal in terms of return on purchasing the ticket, then it isn't the most complete package, but if you are a true football fan you won't find better fare on offer for the same price.
Club merchandise is well stocked in a small stand on the corner of the main stand and the ultras sector, and offers the essentials in terms of scarves, hats, badges, and car stickers. The program is an excellent publication which is free from excessive full page adverts, and features an in depth interview with an Ural player, all the information on the league, a feature on the visiting side, statistics from the last few matches, posters, historical features, full squad information on both sides and a look forward to the city of the next away match.
Considering that this is effectively a temporary solution until the much larger and well-funded Centralniy Stadium is handed over to the club, it is a well-balanced venue that does the simple things well. There isn't a huge show produced to attract the casual fan, but it is a clean, compact, cheap and pleasant stadium that hosts some quality sporting entertainment.
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