World Cup 2018 City Guide: Ekaterinburg

Host cities of the 2018 World Cup in Russia

Ekaterinburg at a glance

Population: 1.5 million
Stadium: Centralny Stadium
Number of matches: 4

Egypt – Uruguay
France – Peru
Japan – Senegal
Mexico – Sweden

The World Cup Stadium

Although the remodelled Centralny Stadium has taken a fair bit of stick for its highly unorthodox appearance given the stands behind the goals extending outside the perimeter, it remains one of the most beautiful venues that will host World Cup games. The original pastel-coloured column facade has been protected to leave a stunning architectural element to what has become a very modern ground. A specially-negotiated lower capacity of 35,000 will be further reduced after the event to a more modest 23,000 (hence the unusual temporary stands), but it is yet to be confirmed who will foot the bill for the conversion. The city government is reluctant to pay a reported $15 million to take down the stands, while the club is keen to keep them to save on costs.

Centralny Stadium – Ekaterinburg Arena for the World Cup – with the historic facade | Source: AXL/Shutterstock

Located just five minutes from the very heart of the city on the crest of a small rise, it is a striking structure. One of the city’s picturesque waterways is a few blocks away, while many of the city’s wealthy residents live within a short distance. The reconstruction of the ground, which is across the road from a major prison, has been mired in controversy since work began a few years ago. A medical university and maternity ward were threatened by the land sold to controversial local developers Sinara, who has been accused of embezzling funds and sabotaging work done by subcontractors.

Ekaterinburg’s History

Ekaterinburg sits a few kilometres from the border between Asia and Europe – even though a famous tourist trap at the train station falsely purports to mark the meeting of continents – and its location on the ancient Silk Road connecting the Far East and Europe has ensured its relevance since its inception. Although it lies just to the east of the Ural mountains, the passage through the continent-dividing range is smooth enough to make the city an obvious hub for transport, trade and culture.

The Imperial Family

It is perhaps best-known for being the last place of residence of the Romanovs; the World Cup itself marks the centenary of the seismic night in Russian history when the last Tsar of the Russian Empire, Nicholas II, and his family were brutally murdered and disposed of in a forest outside the city. The bloodcurdling events of that night were kept secret until the remains of the family were discovered by amateur archaeologist about 40 years ago.

Only founded in 1723, it became a centre of the metalworking industry which served a critical role in the Second World War. A large proportion of the Soviet Army’s tanks were produced in what was then known as Sverdlovsk (after former communist party leader Yakov Sverdlov) and nearby Chelyabinsk. The enormous Uralmash factory is based in the north of the city, with the entire surrounding area designated to house the families of the workers. The area also houses the training facilities and temporary home of the city’s top-flight club FC Ural.

Football in Ekaterinburg

The city’s history of the sport is not exactly storied; in the best part of a century, there hasn’t been a single league title or cup win. Last year was the closest Ural came to lifting they’re first ever piece of silverware when they fell to two late Lokomotiv Moscow goals in their first Russian Cup final, but a recent upturn in fortunes has seen them occupy a mid-table position. The brightest name on their alumni list is current Russian talisman Fedor Smolov, whose loan spell at the club three years ago resurrected his career and simultaneously saved the club from a disastrous relegation.

Ural’s home stadium, the SKB Bank Arena for the game with Lokomotiv Moscow | Source: Andrew Flint/RFN

Ural does have a strong emphasis on promoting young players and giving a chance to up and coming stars from the lower tiers. Smolov’s remarkable recovery from a career that had been heading for the doldrums is the standout example, but other such as former futsal keeper Dmitry Arapov, CSKA loanee Nikita Chernov and Dmitry Korobov have all been given a platform in recent years. Their strong relationship with (relatively) close second-tier club FC Tyumen has worked well, with the latter hosting Ural while their training facilities were converted into a temporary home ground and numerous players going on loan.

What to do in Ekaterinburg

Boris Yeltsin Presidential Centre in Ekaterinburg | Source: Andrew Flint/RFN

The centre of the city is littered with Soviet architecture that the historians will enjoy soaking up. The building where the Romanovs were slaughtered, Ipatiev House, was demolished in the latter years of the Soviet Union, but in its place is the magnificently named Church on the Blood of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land. It is a classic Russian Orthodox church with beautiful white-washed walls and golden minarets that is well worth a visit.

An absolute must is a visit to the Boris Yeltsin Centre, just over a mile from the stadium itself. The newly-formed Russian Federation’s first president is one of Ekaterinburg’s most famous sons, and has a modern museum, almost Guggenheim-esque in its striking design, in his honour on the banks of the Iset River. A trip through his presidential reign and the transition from Soviet to Russian power is fascinating in itself, but the surrounding area with stunning views across the water to the old Dinamo stadium is ideal for a more sedate pace. Regular food stalls offer cheap but satisfying sustenance.

The Iset River with the Vysotsky Skyscraper in the background | Source: Andrew Flint/RFN

While the industrial outskirts are less than appealing, the charm of Ekaterinburg is in its centre with an uneven lay of the land and a vast range of buildings and waterways. The Iset river swells into what appear to be lakes at various points, providing endless natural spots of beauty where people will often congregate in the evenings. A few hundred metres down the river from the Yeltsin Centre is a pedestrian bridge across the water near a string of bars that will be hugely popular during the tournament given their proximity to the Centralny – check out Dr Scotch with its waterside views.

If you venture this far out east, you might as well travel a little bit further to the obelisk that marks the border between two continents. A taxi ride out there will set you back about €15-20, and although the area is more about the significance of the geographical position than a flurry of activities, it is an essential photo opportunity.

For those dedicated to unearthing every possible football-related visit, then the SKB Bank Arena – the converted training centre used while work continues on the Centralniy – is just a ten-minute tram ride from the train station. The surrounding Uralmash area is not attractive, but the crumbling Soviet-era trams offer a dip back in time, and from the nearest stop there is a 20-minute walk down a tree-lined boulevard that used to carry most of the footfall before Ural matches. Then there is the historic Dinamo stadium previously mentioned across from the Yeltsin Centre.

Dinamo Stadium, Ekaterinburg | Source: Andrew Flint/RFN

Finally, one essential visit is the viewing platform high up on the 52nd floor of the Vysotsky Business Centre on Malysheva street, the main thoroughfare from the centre to the Centralniy. The building is the world’s tallest that far north at just over 188m. Tickets are usually less than €5, but may be slightly more during the tournament; the views are worth it though to see one of Russia’s largest cities spread out beneath you as far as your eye can travel.

Author: Andrew Flint

I moved out to Russia in 2010 to teach English because it sounded like fun, then I met and fell in love with FC Tyumen (and my wife!) and decided to stay. Surprisingly, I turned out to be the only English person remotely interested in a Siberian third-tier club, but then who wouldn’t fall for a grizzly Georgian midget, a flying Brazilian and Tyumen’s 93rd most influential figure…

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