Fifa World Cup 2018: navigating the maddening Moscow Metro is driving football fans to despair in Russia

China, as potential future hosts of the tournament, can learn a lesson from the frustrations that visitors are experiencing on Russian public transport

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 June, 2018, 1:30pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 June, 2018, 9:40pm

For all its artistic merit and lavish lighting – chandeliers are not an uncommon sight at the bottom of lengthy, plunging escalators – the Moscow Metro threatens to be a negative on Russia’s hosting of the 2018 World Cup.

The marble walls and striking architecture that sit deep under the city personify a system that melds art and functionality, where the need to move around one of Europe’s biggest cities is married to a pleasing aesthetic. This is not the MTR’s polished, impersonal efficiency.

But there is always, it seems, a sense of helpless despair when standing on the platform of a Moscow Metro station, the grand arches and ornate surroundings doing little to remove a sense of impending, hair-tearing frustration.

Despite being given more than seven years to prepare following Fifa’s announcement of the country’s successful hosting bid in December 2010, the system being used to shuttle hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors around the tournament’s principal venue city remains virtually impenetrable.

Signage using the Cyrillic alphabet dominates – naturally – but with precious few translations available to ease the passage of foreign visitors. The semi-familiarity of the alphabet for English speakers makes it all the more frustrating.

Around the underground system, the lack of multilingual guides and volunteers – those enthusiastic unofficial ambassadors so vital to the success of any major sporting event – only adds to the challenge.

Hapless travellers are too often left scampering franticly from platform to platform, desperately trying to work out where to go next. Stepping onto a train going in the wrong direction occurs with irritating regularity.

Translation apps help, to a degree, while Uber is an overland option that is at least more cost effective than the tourist-gouging taxi drivers who congregate around many of the major train stations.

Of course, these difficulties are all part of the challenge of visiting a foreign city, but given the numbers expected to parade through the country’s capital during the month-long finals it is an issue that should have been addressed and one from which potential future hosts – including China – can learn.

Indeed, the public transport systems in China’s major cities are already much more foreigner friendly, with signage in Roman script ensuring issues encountered in Moscow would be unlikely in the event of the country winning the rights to host the World Cup.

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The keenness, too, among students to learn foreign languages and engage with the outside world would mean fans would receive an enthusiastic multilingual welcome.

That’s not to say that the influx of huge numbers of foreigners has not been greeted by the Russians. In their detached own way, Muscovites have been as tolerant of their city being overrun as would be expected in many other major, working cities. The same, too, in St Petersburg.

And all recent World Cups have had their issues; the vastness of Brazil and the country’s sub-standard travel infrastructure presented any number of challenges while South Africa’s almost non-existent train network ensured jumping from one venue to the next by any mode other than car was problematic.

Russia suffers from its own enormity – and let’s not forget the World Cup is only being hosted by a relatively small portion of this vast nation – causing many to already cast envious glances forward to 2022, with Qatar sitting at the other end of the spectrum. If congestion is not an issue, the next World Cup should be the most accessible tournament since Germany in 2006.

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With FIFA’s decision to increase the size of the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams, the prospect of more manageable tournaments post-Qatar has disappeared. The co-hosting in 2026 by the United States, Canada and Mexico will be a sign of what lies ahead in terms of scope and scale.

Language there will not present much of a problem for the vast majority of visitors but in Russia it seems set to remain an obstacle to be overcome, colouring perceptions of those visiting for this great global celebration.