Newspaper article International New York Times

In Russia, Top-Notch Soccer on Broken-Down Fields ; Makeshift Venues Hosting Club Matches While Main Stadium Is Renovated

Newspaper article International New York Times

In Russia, Top-Notch Soccer on Broken-Down Fields ; Makeshift Venues Hosting Club Matches While Main Stadium Is Renovated

Article excerpt

Having top talent playing on badly worn fields is a troubling problems for teams in playing Champions League games in Russia.

When Bayern Munich's players enter the modest Khimki Arena for a UEFA Champions League match on Wednesday, their biggest concern might not be the Russian cold or hostile fans or even their opponent, CSKA Moscow. It might be the stadium's worn and weary playing surface.

In a season when top Russian teams have come under fire for racist and violent behavior by their fans, another more consistent problem has dogged the schedule of Moscow's top clubs: a severe lack of playable fields and overuse of the remaining pitches. Heavy rains in September compounded the difficulties caused by the closure of Luzhniki Stadium, a colossal facility in southwest Moscow that evicted both Spartak and CSKA this year to begin renovations for the 2018 World Cup.

What has resulted is a string of site switches and makeshift accommodations. But the most troubling aspect for visitors, especially the expensive lineups that go to Russia for Champions League games, is the inherent risk involved in having top-level, highly paid talent slogging it out in the mud.

Khimki Arena, an 18,500-seat stadium on the outskirts of Moscow, a short walk from the capital's often-clogged beltway, has been dealt the toughest schedule. It has tried to preserve its battered playing surface while hosting Russian premier league matches for both CSKA and Dynamo, Champions League matches and a youth league.

When Manchester City visited Khimki for a Champions League game on Oct. 23, much of the focus afterward was on racist chants directed at Manchester City's Ivorian midfielder, Yaya Toure.

But before the game, City's manager, Manuel Pellegrini, focused on the threadbare field. He complained that it was "unbelievable that the world's most important cup competition is allowed to be played on this pitch." During the game sand popped up under the ball, and players slipped as they struggled to keep their footing.

Russian news stations broadcast video of what they said were groundskeepers spray-painting the field green before the match, and Viktor Gusev, a soccer commentator for Russia's Channel One, said, "It was pitiful to watch football of that level on such a bad field."

It has been an inauspicious start to Russia's preparations for the World Cup, which will be played in 11 cities across the country in 2018. As Moscow's clubs scramble for usable pitches amid ongoing stadium construction, visitors from the Champions League have also had to make do.

"If Luzhniki were there, we wouldn't have this problem," Gusev said. "And I simply can't understand why they closed it for the season."

That closing has required scheduling acrobatics to prevent cancellations. In September, only four days before its Champions League match against Viktoria Plzen, CSKA announced that poor field conditions had forced a last-minute switch from Khimki Arena to the stadium of rival Zenit St. …

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