No football frenzy in Emerging Europe's Euro 2020 host cities

No football frenzy in Emerging Europe's Euro 2020 host cities
By bne IntelliNews June 8, 2021

Some of the host cities for the delayed 2020 UEFA European Football Championship — which include four emerging European cities Baku, Bucharest, Budapest and St Petersburg — have spent heavily on sporting and transport infrastructure. Usually this investment gets repaid through the immediate boost from fan tourism and hiked spending during the tournament followed by longer-term benefits from the raising of the country’s profile on the international stage. 

This time around the subdued mood across most of Europe and continued restrictions in numerous countries makes such a return on investment a remote possibility. Yet there is hope in the host cities that Euro 2020/2021 will bring at least some benefits, not least for their troubled tourism sectors — for example, each of the host cites benefits from free advertising in other host cities across Europe, which could attract more tourist in future. 

In Hungary, industry observers say the tournament could be a life-saver for the Budapest hotel sector, which was badly hit by the pandemic. While domestic tourism is set to repeat last year’s record performance, hotels in Budapest are feeling the pain as they depend predominantly on European guests, who accounted for 70-80% of overnight stays. Experts say that Budapest tourism will recover from the crisis next year and 2021 will be about making it through the day.

This is in contrast to three years ago when the 2018 World Cup brought football fans from across the world to 11 Russian host cites, putting new destinations on the tourist map and creating a friendly rivalry between fans that temporarily overshadowed the frosty diplomatic relations between Russia and Western countries. This summer, Russia’s northern capital St Petersburg will play host to some of the matches in Euro 2020 as one of 11 host cities across the continent. Yet there is little of the usual football frenzy. Around 7.7mn people visited Russia during the 2018 World Cup, but with coronavirus (COVID-19) infections rising in some of the host countries and travel restrictions still in force, even dedicated fans are understandably wary about gathering in their local bar to watch matches — let alone flying across Europe to watch in person. 

Overall, according to a 2018 McKinsey report, the Russian economy had the potential to gain 0.2% annually or 1% of GDP over 2013-2018, around RUB820bn ($13.3bn), from preparing and hosting the FIFA World Cup 2018. While Russia spent RUB1.2 trillion ($19.4bn) on World Cup preparations, according to McKinsey, exceeding estimates and making it one of the most expensive tournaments ever, the infrastructure built for the World Cup and increased tourist flow was seen adding an additional RUB80bn-110bn annually, on top of RUB120bn-180bn annual investment, mainly in sport and transport infrastructure, the report said. Following the circa $50bn invested into the Sochi winter Olympics the region flourished and Sochi transformed into a thriving local economic hub.

Some of the sectors that typically benefit include hospitality, drinks and snacks manufacturers and retailers, broadcasters and betting shops.

The economic benefits go beyond the host nation; when Croatia (with a population of just over 4mn) unexpectedly made it to the final of the 2018 World Cup, this resulted in a consumer spending spree and expectations of a future increase in tourist traffic

Sportswashing Azerbaijan 

Another reason for hosting a major international sporting event is to burnish a reputation tarnished by international politics (the 2018 World Cup took place four years after Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimea) or domestic politics, Azerbaijan’s capital Baku being a case in point. 

Now a Euro 2020/2021 host city, Baku has been a Formula 1 Grand Prix fixture since 2016 and the Aliyev administration says it is proud to present Azerbaijan as a sports country.

Ahead of the championship, Elkhan Mammadov, executive vice president of the Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan (AFFA), said in a press release: “We are excited to welcome fans from the nations involved in our Euro 2020 host fixtures and have made a sensible plan to ensure those who wish to come can enjoy Baku, confident of a safe experience in our wonderful city. Baku has been gearing up for months for this once in-a-lifetime showcase and I know everybody involved is committed to ensuring this a truly unforgettable celebration of football. We look forward to fans joining these celebrations in the coming weeks.”

However, the choice of Azerbaijan as a host country for a major sporting event has attracted the ire of human rights campaigners, with Azerbaijan’s authoritarian leader Ilham Aliyev accused of capitalising on the gleaming spectacle to gloss over widespread corruption and rampant rights violations.

"Azerbaijan has a track record of using mega sports events to whitewash its abysmal human rights record," Giorgi Gogia, Human Rights Watch (HRW) associate director for Europe and Central Asia, told AFP on June 1. Euro 2020, he added, "is little more than a vanity project or window dressing by an authoritarian government to attract international attention”.

Another complaint about gas-rich Azerbaijan’s hosting of top sports events is that officials present scant detail on the related expenditure. Journalist Mehman Aliyev, who heads the country's sole independent news agency, Turan, told AFP that "there is no transparency whatsoever about the government's expenditures on sports infrastructure and on hosting sports events”.

Infrastructure investments 

There is more transparency concerning the spending in Bucharest, which has invested over €200mn for the European championship, according to bne IntelliNews’ Romanian corespondent. The money was spent to modernise four stadiums and Bucharest’s second airport at Baneasa as well as to build a train line linking the main airport at Otopeni with the central train station Gara de Nord.

The train that links Otopeni airport and the central train station was a €100mn project. It was designed as a last-minute solution to cover the lack of a metro line to the airport. Meanwhile, Baneasa airport was upgraded under a €12mn project.

Half of the money was spent to build a new stadium and upgrade another three. The main stadium, Arena Nationala, which will host the Euroe 2020/2021 official matches, required only a €4bn refurbishment since it is relatively new. A new stadium, Ghencea, was built  at a cost of €50mn and after Euro 2020/2021 it will be used by the CSA Steaua football club. Another €24mn was spent on the Rapid stadium. It was supposed to be a training ground for one of the teams coming to Bucharest, but is not ready yet. Finally, the stadium at the Arc de Triomphe, thoroughly modernised at a cost of €20mn, is ready for spectators. 

Bucharest will host three group games and one round of 16 game in June, with the first one being scheduled for Sunday, June 13.

In Russia, the arena hosting the tournament is the St Peterburg Krestovsky stadium, or Gazprom arena, sponsored by the natural gas giant Gazprom, the operator of the contentious Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea. It was completed ahead of the 2018 World Cup and is home to the FC Zenit Saint Petersburg team. 

St Petersburg will host seven Euro 2020/2021 matches from June 12 to July 2, including a quarterfinal match. The number increased from four matches previously slated, with Russia taking three additional games from Dublin.

Baku had already completed the 225,000 square metre Baku Olympic Stadium in February 2015, and it served as the main venue for the European Games later that year. The stadium will host the quarterfinals and three of the group games for Euro 2020/2021.

Hungary’s Puskas Arena was completed in late 2019. Named after the legendary former Hungary captain Ferenc Puskas, it replaced an older stadium also named after Puskas that was demolished in 2016. While it is the highest-profile construction in the country, the Puskas Ferenc Arena is just one of the many stadiums built or upgraded under Hungary’s football-obsessed Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose government spent hundreds of billions of forints on the sport. Critics say reckless spending on sport infrastructure is draining money away from the health sector and education.

Not a usual tournament 

Orban is by no means the only avid football fan in Hungary, where on the night of June 14, 2016, thousands of fans flocked onto the streets celebrating Hungary’s first victory in a European championship in 40 years against Austria, stopping traffic in central Budapest. But as bne IntelliNews’ Budapest correspondent reports, there is no football fever this time despite the fact that Budapest will be one of the hosts to the tournament and Marco Rossi’s team can play before 70,000 fans at the Puskas Ferenc Arena. 

The Hungarian government was the only one of the host countries to allow full-house matches. The decision came just as the third wave of the pandemic peaked with daily deaths close to 250 and more than 12,000 people were being treated in hospital in the country of 9.8mn.

Opposition parties criticised Orban for putting people’s lives at risk, but once again the prime minister’s gamble seems to have paid off as Hungary is now reporting under 100 new daily cases and there are only 600 people in hospital with COVID-19. The government takes credit for achieving the highest vaccination rate in Europe after Malta by being the first in the EU to turn to Russian and Chinese vaccines. Two-thirds of its adult population or 5.3mn people have received the first jab and half of the over-18s, 4mn people, are fully vaccinated.

Hungarian fans can only enter the stadium with a valid immunity certificate, while foreigners may enter the country with a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours before entry. There will be no need for fans to stay in self-isolation. After the games, the match ticket will serve as the equivalent of an immunity card, authorising foreign visitors to enter restaurants, hotels, stadiums or leisure events.

These sites currently are not accessible for Hungarians without a vaccination card. This feature of the regulation is seen as a double standard by some and has drawn criticism, but there are economic considerations behind it. Budapest expects an estimated 10,000-20,000 foreign visitors for the four matches to be played between June 15 and June 27. 

In St Petersburg, the city’s governor Alexander Beglov previously reported to President Vladimir Putin that World Cup 2018 infrastructure is ready to host Euro 2020/2021, including a screening and identification system for fans. The stadium's capacity is 80,000 fans, while it hosted a maximum of 65,000 people during the 2018 World Cup. The St Petersburg authorities previously said the arena is ready to comply with the 50% attendance cap imposed due to COVID-19, while expanding the capacity to 75,000 is also possible. 

For the matches in Baku, the 68,000-person Olympic Stadium will be at 50% capacity to aid social distancing. AFFA said a decision was also taken not to create fan zones around Baku in order to prevent crowds of people gathering in close proximity. 

AFFA added that “Azerbaijan currently has a low rate of COVID-19 infections, with cases having fallen 75% from the peak of the pandemic and a robust vaccination programme underway”.

Under a similar system to that adopted in Hungary, upon presenting their match ticket at the border and proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test result (not older than 48 hours), fans will be granted a quarantine exemption and will be permitted to move around the country freely. No further tests will be required to attend the stadium on match days.

In Bucharest, officials initially planned to accept between 13,000 and 15,000 foreign supporters for each match (25% of the stadium’s capacity), but as the pandemic situation improved the limit should be increased (though this is yet to be confirmed) to half of the capacity. There will be no special area or Fan Zone as originally announced.

The Romanian Football Federation (FRF) has published a set of rules for the fans planning to attend the Euro 2020/2021 matches at the National Arena in Bucharest, in accordance with the national legislation on the organisation of sports events during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the FRF, people will be allowed to enter the stadium with proof of full vaccination or a previous COVID-19 infection, or a negative PCR test (not more than 72 hours old) or a negative rapid antigen test (up to 24 hours old). Before the match, spectators will have to head to one of the accredited medical centres in Bucharest with their medical documentation, where if the documents are in order, they will be given a tamper-proof access wristband. Spectators then have to present both their ticket and wristband when entering the stadium. There are also special procedures for spectators arriving at Henri Coanda Airport from a red or yellow list country, who will have to present their documentation at the airport to receive a wristband. 

Contributions from Will Conroy in Prague, Vadim Dumesh in Paris, Iulian Ernst in Bucharest, Clare Nuttall in Glasgow and Tamas Szilagyil in Budapest