- Andrew Flint
Centralniy Stadium – Ural Ekaterinburg
Photos by Andrew Flint, Stadium Journey
Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.57
Centralniy Stadium Ulitsa Repina, 5 Yekaterinburg, Sverdlovskaya oblast’, 620028
Year Opened: 1957
Window to Asia
Sitting on the border of Europe and Asia, Ekaterinburg lies on one of the world’s most historic trading routes that wound across the entire length of the largest landmass on the planet. The Medieval Ages saw the ancient Silk Road carry spices, precious metals, and exotic food from the Far East. The site where Ekaterinburg is now found was a natural stop before crossing the Ural Mountains. It was the place where Russia’s last royal family was brutally slaughtered, and has grown to become the fourth-largest city in the country. In more recent times, Russian president Boris Yeltsin was born in the city, and a centre dedicated to his political life and the Russian presidency was built a few years ago in the heart of the city.
Its sporting prowess is less grand, although the local professional futsal team won the UEFA Futsal Cup in 2008. In the summer of 2018, it will host four matches as the furthest east of the FIFA World Cup host cities in the spectacular Centralniy Stadium (to be named Ekaterinburg Arena for the duration of the tournament). First built in 1957, the original pillared facade has been protected as a listed building, and so has been retained in the redevelopment. There have been two drawn-out phases of redevelopment over the past decade beset with corruption controversies, but the entire revamp is now complete.
Russian Football Premier League side Ural Ekaterinburg will take up residency after the World Cup when the capacity will be reduced to around 24,000. Ural were Russian Cup runners up in 2017, and have been a solid mid-table outfit in recent seasons, but have never won a major trophy in their history. Recent luminaries to have featured for them include former Tottenham Hotspur forward Roman Pavlyuchenko, Chilean international Gerson Acevedo, Russia’s talismanic forward Fyodor Smolov, and current star Eric Bicfalvi, capped by Romania. Although the club’s stated ambition is to qualify for Europe while unearthing unknown talents and selling them on, with a spectacular new stadium they may be able to set their sights a little higher.
Food & Beverage 3
As with most newly built stadiums in Russia, there is a standard menu of routine fare – hot dogs, french fries, chocolate bars, hot and cold beverages – but the standard of food is not great. That is in the concourse area at least, where the prices are not extortionate. A coffee will set you back around $1.50, while a hot dog is around $2. The sausage is a common variety of boiled meat that is found in Russia that fills a gap in your stomach, but won’t get the taste buds flowing.
The better option is to head to the stalls on the ground once you get through the entrance gates, but before heading into the stands themselves. There is a decent choice of local, western, and eastern cuisine to pick from, including pancakes with fillings, cheeseburgers, and shawarma (a kind of wrapped kebab with shredded pork or chicken and special sauce). None of these options will set you back more than $3, but the quality is much higher.
The extraordinary design of the stadium with two upper tiers built literally outside the perimeter of the ground itself might make you think the acoustics would suffer, but the roof is curved in such a way that the sound in fact reverberates effectively. The original stands were higher alongside the pitch with the two ends having a lower profile – which is loosely what the stadium will return to once the post-World Cup restructuring is complete – but the noise is developed by the traditional grouping of serious fans behind each goal.
For the visit of the larger teams, attendances will be much higher and therefore will create a naturally more intense atmosphere. Spartak Moscow are the country’s best-supported club by far, and have fans in every city, so when they come to town it is guaranteed to impress. While the Centralniy has been remodelled, Ural have played at their training ground in the ugly, industrial quarter of the city in an inconvenient area, so attendances have dropped, but ironically the team have performed better than they have in years while in temporary exile from their main home. If this continues, the atmosphere in more comfortable surroundings will only improve.
The stadium itself is right in the heart of the city, just a 15-minute walk from the landmark Vysotsky Tower – Ekaterinburg’s tallest building with a breathtaking observation floor on the 53rd level – along one of the busiest thoroughfares. The ground is on a small rise on the edge of a residential area that is in itself reasonably quiet, but the wealthy suburbs of the well-to-do are a stone’s throw away. The recommended tourist routes through the city run very close by alongside the stunning waterways that characterise the city centre.
Adjacent to main entrance gates is a prison and a maternity ward that the original construction company considered relocating to create more land between the intersecting roads that run past the stadium. There are not a huge number of bars in the immediate vicinity, but if you venture just a few minutes on foot you will find yourself in the busiest part of town without too much trouble. As a result, the neighbourhood is relatively quiet, with newly developed apartment blocks and restaurants springing up behind the ground.
Ural are not a club with a long history of tangible success, and as recently as 2015 were saved from relegation to the second tier of Russian football by goal difference alone, so the fans have become accustomed to the dip in quality. A flurry of smart recruitment and reasonable investment has seen the playing squad improve immensely in recent years, with older overpaid veterans being shipped out and their places being taken by younger, hungrier players.
The ultras behind the goal will tirelessly belt out chants and songs regardless of the weather or opposition. They hold banners representing the different outlying towns they have come from, with regulars travelling up to 300 km for home matches. The bulk of the crowd take some encouragement before they add to the volume inside the ground, but once the shared chanting between two separate sectors gets going the support for the team becomes more apparent from all angles. A determined club president and hugely popular manager make a ‘good cop, bad cop’ combination with a real identity that fans tune into, although the lack of culture of success has bred a culture of general mildness across the whole fan base.
The nearest metro stations could be a little closer in an ideal world, but they are still only 15 minutes on foot. The tickets are very cheap – around $0.35 for a single journey – and the only current line on the metro system runs directly from the train station, although the wait between trains on the system can be about 12-15 minutes. If you are brave enough to tackle the minibus system, which is even cheaper and extremely reliable but also very cramped, then you will never need to wait more than a few minutes to catch a bus that’ll take you right outside the ground from the centre and the train station.
Depending on how long you plan to stay in the city, the best option for getting to the ground might be to spend some time by the engorged river section that flows by the Yeltsin Centre, and then stroll 20 minutes on foot. Once at the ground itself, security is very smooth, with a large outer perimeter to the grounds broken up by six entrance pavilions where you must go through a bag search and a metal detector. With this in mind, it is advisable to arrive around two hours before kick off if you wish to have plenty of time to soak up the pre-match atmosphere and enjoy the food and drink without needing to rush.
Return on Investment 4
The cost of tickets is crazily cheap considering it is for the premier level of football in Russia. For the cheapest seats at the biggest matches, you won’t pay more than $8, and in return for that you will see international players at a completely refurbished venue in comfort. Pre-match entertainment comes in the form of a very vocal emcee over the PA system and some dancers on the pitch, and sometimes some bizarre mayonnaise bottle mascots.
The significant investment in the stadium has not translated into a huge hike in ticket prices thankfully, so in terms of value for money it is unbeatable for the sport on offer and the standard of surroundings. The seats are spacious, the grading of the stands is steep so views are excellent from all angles, and the protection from the often harsh winds is infinitely improved from the training ground that had been used for three years.
The match program is superb, with a featured in-depth interview with a current player, full background information on the opposition, statistics for the league, and without the clutter of excessive advertising to dilute the content. For longer-lasting memorabilia there is a very slim selection of tiny stands dotted around the stadium grounds which sell team scarves, hats and basic paraphernalia usually found in merchandise stores. There is no official club store yet, as the ground has been redeveloped primarily with the World Cup in mind, but it is unlikely to be huge if and when it is built.
The stadium itself is the main attraction other than the football, but in terms of extra value the entertainment isn’t a full-on show. Stilt walkers and face painters can be on duty around the large open space inside the entrance gates, and there is a stage where singers and general children’s entertainers ply their trade, but other than that it is the football that people go for, not the sundries.