Inside track on England’s next World Cup venue Kaliningrad

Tucked away on the Baltic coast, Kaliningrad is often regarded as being very isolated from Russia, but this World Cup is giving the country’s Baltic exclave some much-needed relevance.

Sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, Kaliningrad is 250 miles from the Russian border and rarely frequented by holiday makers or sports fans.

Now, as its World Cup celebration comes to a close with England’s Group G clash with Belgium, local organisers and people are reflecting on the success of hosting matches and the importance of creating a legacy.

Kaliningrad is not blessed with great beauty, with grey apartment blocks and run-down areas detracting from the pleasant waterways of the Pregolya River that winds its way through the city.

Victory Square, home to the impressive Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and the ‘Fisherman’s Village’ down by the river are popular among travelling supporters, but aside from out-of-town excursions to the coast, the city offers little else in terms of entertainment.

Formerly known as Konigsberg, the city was under the German and Prussian control before falling into Soviet hands in 1945, and the Konigsberg Cathedral and statue of Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher who was born here, are reminders of that European heritage.

The region was of strategic importance to the Soviet’s Baltic Fleet due to having an ice-free port all year round in the Baltic Sea, and that importance did not diminish upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Abundant signs of that military significance decorate the city in the shape of museums and Soviet battleships and warheads.

But this World Cup has presented the city with an unmissable opportunity to show what else Kaliningrad has to offer, especially its growing relationship with football.

Kaliningrad’s World Cup 2018 ambassador and sports minister, Natalya Ishchenko, was keen to stress how football has grown since Kaliningrad was chosen as one of Russia’s 11 host cities.

She said: “The number of people playing football in the Kaliningrad region has doubled and the number of children having football coaching has increased by almost two thousand.

“We have been preparing for the tournament for a long time and now Kaliningrad is living through football.

“This is a great joy and responsibility – we want to leave a great legacy.”

In new roads, a totally refurbished airport, new hotels and sports facilities, that legacy is plain to see, but harnessing the success of the World Cup will be crucial if Kaliningrad is going to continue to benefit from all the infrastructure improvements.

Speaking to people in the city, the World Cup has been a great experience and a chance for them to welcome considerably more tourists than ever before.

Vadim Solovev, a hotel manager, expressed his sadness that Kaliningrad only hosted four games in the World Cup, but admitted that it has been a roaring success for the region.

“Everyone I have spoken to has had positive things to say about Kaliningrad,” he said.

“This is a footballing region. There are other sports like athletics and volleyball, and a little ice hockey, but football is our main sport and I think this will really help more people to get behind our local team.”

Baltika Kaliningrad have not played in Russia’s top flight since 1998 and narrowly missed out on promotion this year, losing in a playoff.

They regularly have attendances of around 4,500 at home games, but will now aim to fill the new Kaliningrad Stadium, whose capacity will be reduced from 35,000 to 25,000 after the tournament.

This is a city that is maximising its potential, both in terms of football and tourism, hoping to become a place known for more than just being Russia’s peculiar European territory.

On the evidence of local enthusiasm and pride, it might just work.

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