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Russia’s World Cup arena without a pitch

For a while last year, construction workers played football on the waste ground outside rather than work on building Samara’s World Cup stadium. © AFP / Mladen ANTONOV

MOSCOW, Russian Federation, Mar 31 – The grass for Russia’s perpetually delayed World Cup stadium in the provincial city of Samara is still growing in Germany.

The monumental structure’s fancy glass roof has been abandoned in favour of a more spartan metal version.

And the December 2017 construction deadline has been pushed back for the umpteenth time.

The troubles of Samara Arena have come to symbolise the pitfalls of bringing the June 14 to July 15 football showpiece to the sleepiest corners of Russia.

“There is a huge amount of work to be done,” FIFA competitions chief Colin Smith said during a March 21 inspection.

“Obviously we would expect further progress than this.”

– ‘Stairway to the Cosmos’ –

Few doubt that Russia can get its act together and have the Volga River stadium up and working by the time its first scheduled match between Costa Rica and Serbia rolls around on June 17.

But how Samara ended up without a pitch to play on less than three months before kickoff is a murky business that cost the governor his job.

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The contract to build a space-themed arena that looked like a flying saucer was awarded to an established regional company a good four years ago.

Organisers even came up with a lofty motto for the 45,000 seater: “A Stairway to the Cosmos”.

The transparent dome was supposed to stetch down to the ground through an intricate mesh of beams that lit up the city skyline at night.

It was a project the likes of which no small Russian city had seen — and one meant to fit the $225 million budget fixed for all stadiums.

Samara authorities complicated matters further by packing money-spinning stores and real estate space into the design that made the arena 40 percent larger than needed.

Workers had downed their tools by the time it became clear in mid-2016 that all this would cost at least $300 million.

Less than half of the stadium was finished and FIFA began taking notice.

How much the entire thing has cost now — and who is paying for it — is not entirely clear.

The local news site put the price at $315 million after the translucent dome was replaced with a metal one and other corners were cut.

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Delays caused by a new architectural plan and construction approval pushed back the completion date from December to March and then the end of April.

The first test game is now scheduled for April 28 — if the pitch arrives in time.

– ‘We need to wait’ –

Russia’s agriculture ministry gave Samara special permission to buy the German grass to avoid the problems plaguing other Russian arenas.

The pitch is ready but there is nowhere to lay it. The surface on which it is meant to be rolled out is not completed.

Problems were only compounded when a massive flat hothouse designed to keep the soil warm collapsed in February under the weight of snow.

The ground froze over for nearly a month.

“We don’t yet have a pitch and obviously we need to wait for some warmer weather conditions in order to get this pitch installed,” FIFA’s Smith said.

He was wearing a parka and standing in a field of snow outside the frozen stadium at the time.

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Temperatures are due to nudge a degree to two above freezing next week as one of Russia’s coldest winters in years begins to let up.

Organisers want to stage two or three matches at each new stadium before the World Cup to see how it all holds up.

“A lot depends on the weather,” Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko said on Friday.

“We want to hold our first test match on April 28. For the time being, we have no plans to postpone it.”

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