After shaky start, will Zenit St Petersburg’s mega-money World Cup ground be fit to fly the flag at Russia 2018 in six months?

After years of delays blighted construction, constant issues with the playing surface leave organisers racing time

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 December, 2017, 1:38pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 December, 2017, 8:36pm

The troublesome pitch at the 2018 World Cup venue in Saint Petersburg will be relaid for a third time, officials said on Monday.

Work began 10 days ago on this latest replacement for the grass, just after the Russian season had gone into its winter break.

The surface will be required for a Europa League match in February before the domestic season resumes in March, giving no guarantees of its condition come the start of the World Cup in June.

The playing surface at the Saint Petersburg Stadium has been plagued by problems from the outset, including its initial installation not meeting Fifa regulations for shock absorption back in October 2016, with complaints of a “shaky pitch” reported and the retractable playing surface branded “unstable”.

The state-of-the-art 68,000-capacity stadium hosted four games at this year’s Confederations Cup, including the final, but the pitch was so damaged from the two Zenit St Petersburg matches that were played on it at the end of the Russian season in April that a new temporary pitch had to be laid ahead of the tournament.

Despite that, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who played for his country against New Zealand on the pitch at the Confederations Cup, was vocal in his displeasure at the standard of the temporary surface, calling it “difficult” and saying that the grass was “somewhat too long”. The pitch was treated before the final after significant damage had been sustained in the group games.

Further work began 10 days ago to relay the surface again after the pitch deteriorated once more leaving it dangerous to play on.

Regional politician Igor Albine said the change was necessary to deliver a pitch that could “withstand all challenges”.

During the World Cup the stadium will host Morocco v Iran, Russia v Egypt, Brazil v Costa Rica, Nigeria v Argentina, a last-16 game, a semi-final and the third-place play-off.

If the pitch is not playable for the first game it hosts on June 15 it could prove to be both costly and embarrassing in a World Cup that has already put the hosts under scrutiny.

The one saving grace is that games could potentially be moved to Zenit’s old stadium, as happened when the damaged Saint Petersburg Stadium pitch meant that the club could only play two of their final three home games of last season at their new home.

Zenit’s season resumes with their Europa League tie with Celtic in February, while the second half of the Russian domestic league runs from March to May.

Construction of the scandal-hit arena, also known as Zenit Arena, began in 2007 but was only finished in December last year after spiralling bills and missed deadlines.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse