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Wednesday 6th
posted by Morning Star in Sport

ASIF BURHAN tests the turf for the World Cup curtain-raiser

IT MAY not seem like it, but the Luzhniki Stadium has been the backdrop for many of the pivotal moments in our sporting consciousness.

It was there that the sporting rivalry between Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett reached its zenith in 1980. Would Coe now be IAAF president had he not recovered to win the 1500m after losing his favoured 800m?

It was there that Cristiano Ronaldo missed a vital penalty in the 2008 Champions League Final shoot-out only to be reprieved by John Terry’s slip. Would Ronaldo be the icon he is now had he been responsible for Manchester United’s defeat?

It was also there, in 2013, where an underperforming Usain Bolt defied the odds and held off Justin Gatlin to “save his sport.” Would Bolt have recovered to win a record-breaking third Olympic gold in Rio had his aura slipped then?

Daley Thompson’s first Olympic gold, Gary Lineker’s last England goal, the on-field fight between David Batty and Graeme Le Saux — all took place in a stadium built as the Central Lenin Stadium in 1956 under the shadow of the romantically named Vorobyovy Gory (Sparrow Hills), an idyllic parkland in front of Moscow

State University offering spectacular views across the bending waters of the Moskva River over the venue where the 21st World Cup winners will be crowned on July 15 2018.

Nikolay Gulyayev, a former Olympic champion speed skater and now the Russian Sport Minister, was keen to impress on the media that all of the €300 million spent on rebuilding the largest stadium in the world’s biggest country came from the budget of the Moscow local government, not from private investment.

For a stadium which cost a fraction of the sum spent on rebuilding Wembley, the results are impressive.

Like the old Wembley, the Luzhniki was known for its regular six-figure crowds but the introduction of individual seats reduced both old grounds to a limit of around 78,000. The overall capacity of the Luzhniki has now increased to 81,000 seats, more than the Maracana, venue of the last World Cup final, and the fifth biggest football stadium in Europe.

The athletics track where Coe and Bolt prevailed has gone, bringing the new two-tiered seating tribunes right up to the pitch.

Around 15 per cent of the seats at the old stadium suffered from an obstructed view which meant capacity for the 2008 Champions League Final was limited to 69,500. To alleviate that, the steepness of the gradient has been increased significantly, bringing the highest seats much closer to the action.

The stands which once arced around the track are now straight and parallel to the pitch creating an intimidating feel more reminiscent of the magnificent Munich Arena than Wembley.

The pitch, famously covered in artificial turf in 2002 to withstand the Russian winter, has reverted back to grass. Heat lamps gave the new surface an eerie yellow glow but were necessary as snow flakes filled the air above.

Organisers are hoping that the grass laid for the inaugural match at the stadium in November will still be in place for the World Cup final, putting the ground staff under huge pressure to maintain it during the next few months ahead of the next test event, a friendly with Brazil on March 23.

The scrutiny will be intense, the new stadium currently has 300 press boxes installed but this will increase to 2,000 for the World Cup. A ring of executive and sky boxes will cater for sponsors and oligarchs, a far cry from the socialist ideals under which the original stadium was built — without any VIP facilities— in the Soviet Union.

Safety will also be a concern in the stadium that played host to one of the deadliest incidents in football, in which 66 supporters died and 61 were injured in a stairway crush during a stampede in the closing stages of a 1982 Uefa Cup match.

A new system of cascade staircases are said to have cut evacuation by seven minutes. The first match with Argentina did not go entirely smoothly, with exits reportedly overcrowded. Gulyayev put that down to renovations at the Sportivnaya underground station and promised that the situation would improve before March. A new purpose-built metro stadium servicing the stadium was also opened last year.

The old stadium was also one of the busiest in Europe, regularly staging the home matches of the nomadic Spartak and CSKA as well as the national team. Now both clubs have finally built their own state-of-the-art grounds within the city.

After the under-use of stadiums in South Africa and Brazil post-World Cup, could there be a danger that the Luzhniki would also turn into a white elephant? Not according to Gulyayev who insisted that the complex would become the base for all age groups of the Russian national team and the women’s team, the only eastern European side in this year’s Women’s Euros.

New training pitches are to be built around the stadium before the end of the year but it is St Petersburg’s new Krestovsky Stadium not any of Moscow's new grounds which will host matches in the pan-European Euro 2020 finals.

At the end of May, the stadium will be handed over to the Fifa local organising committee and a stadium which bore Lenin’s name until 1992 will be plastered with the logos of corporate sponsors who were for so long restricted from doing business there.

As well as the hosts’ opening match against Saudi Arabia, the Luzhniki will also stage world champions Germany against Mexico, European champions Portugal against Morocco and Denmark v France before a last-16 tie and a semi-final

The first eastern European stadium to host the final, it will next year own a unique place in history as the only active stadium to have staged the Summer Olympics, Champions League final and both the opening and closing matches of a World Cup.