Fifa World Cup: unrecognisable Russia at odds with its history as the well-heeled pay almost US$20,000 for lavish finale
A gleaming, resplendent and modern Luzhniki Stadium is a reflection of Vladimir Putin’s new Russia
At the end of the main approach to the Luzhniki Stadium, Vladimir Lenin’s stony presence served as a focal point for many at the 2018 World Cup finals, the towering granite likeness of the communist leader a reminder of the journey Russia has taken during the last century.
Surrounded by the promotional booths of Fifa’s partners – from the Soviet Union’s ideological enemy, the United States, as well as from one-time partners China and elsewhere – the juxtaposition of the left-wing icon amidst the trappings of rampant capitalism was incongruous.
Quite what Lenin would have made, then, of Fifa’s lavish hospitality programme and the bling associated with the World Cup final, is anyone’s guess.
Ennio Morricone’s ‘The Ecstasy of Gold’ thundered around the cavernous venue as former Germany captain Philipp Lahm hauled the World Cup trophy onto the pitch in its custom-made Louis Vuitton carry case. Understated is not the name of the game.
Above the halfway line, opposite the broad expanse of the blue-desked media tribune that is positioned high on the stadium’s upper deck, sit the glass-fronted corporate boxes that are now a dominant feature of any modern sporting facility.
The Luzhniki no longer boasts the Soviet aura it had when the Olympic Games were hosted on the same site in 1980, with the old venue razed and rebuilt in 2013 in preparation for the World Cup finals. It is now gleaming, resplendent and modern – a reflection of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Here, the super rich have come to play, to be seen at the event that – for two hours at least – commands unrivalled global attention. Access does not come cheap, but wealthy individuals from China are now making their presence known in this most exclusive of clubs.
Match Hospitality, who provide these services on Fifa’s behalf, has been a growing presence at successive World Cup tournaments and, with their subtle black and gold branding, Russia has been no exception.
Some matches, in particular those featuring the likes of Argentina and Germany, attracted close to a thousand guests to packages that started at around US$500 for a group match while top-end access was available for as much as US$5,000.
Well-heeled Chinese fans were undeterred by the price, moving quickly to snap them up. In total, almost 10,000 hospitality packages were sold to 7,000 individuals in China.
But everything moved up several notches for the decider between France and Croatia. Hospitality access for the final started at US$3,500 per person, with that sum securing access to an area known as Match House and a Category 1 ticket for the final.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Tsarsky Lounge, where a whopping US$19,800 per person ensured the purchaser a seat on the halfway line in the middle tier, offering an unrivalled view of proceedings below.
Inside the lounge itself, a special à la carte menu was created by Dmitry Yeremeyev, the chef at Turandot, one of Moscow’s most famous restaurants. The culinary options, the brochure claimed, were inspired by local Russian seasonal produce and the latest international gastronomic trends.
Of the 78,011 people attending the final, close to 12,000 gained access via one of the hospitality programmes, with a privileged few – including 130 from China and Hong Kong – watching from this most exclusive of areas.
With 20 minutes to go to kick-off, Jack Ma – owner of Alibaba and the proprietor of the South China Morning Post – shuffled past on the way to his seat.
Elsewhere, among the hustle, bustle and building pre-match anticipation, Hong Kong celebrities Nicholas Tse, Joey Yung and Charlene Choi were said to be mingling with other high-net-worth individuals, their families and friends in this super-exclusive enclave.
The atmosphere was similar to that found in a first class airline lounge or at an afternoon tea buffet at a high-end hotel, but with access to the greatest show on earth bolted on to the side.
“Our Chinese guests have been great,” said Duncan Sangster, a spokesman of Match Hospitality. “They turn up on time, they’re well behaved and they have been a pleasure to work with.
“We know the concept of what we do with our kind of service is a relatively new idea for many people from China but they have embraced the concept and we look forward to having more opportunities to work with them in the future.”
Match Hospitality is looking to further expand its reach into Asia, with Hong Kong-based BH Hospitality its exclusive regional agent and who, in turn, appointed Shankai Sports and the other regional sales agents around the region.
The appeal of gourmet cuisine, a unique vibe and the best seats in the house is certainly taking hold.
“This experience has been so much more than I thought was possible,” said one guest from Hebei Province, who asked not to be named. “I have been to even Premier League matches but the World Cup is so much more intense. Even my wife has learnt to love football at last.”