RIO DE JANEIRO – If you thought Manaus was outlandish during this World Cup – a venue situated in a middle-of-nowhere, improbable location with extreme weather conditions – then just wait.
In four years the grandest soccer tournament of all will take another twist of the unexpected, as Russia welcomes the travelling World Cup hordes with open arms – and promptly packs a bunch of them off to somewhere that is usually so cold most people assume it is in Siberia.
The city of Yekaterinburg is a key stop on the Trans-Siberia railway but is actually in the Ural mountains, which separate Russia's European and Asian territories. The Ural Federal District, of which it is a part, directly borders Siberian land, or for the most part, ice.
Indeed, Yekaterinburg, which is one of the 12 venues scheduled to host tournament games in 2018, has a climate in keeping with the place most associated with frosty and inhospitable conditions – and for most of the year is just as chilly as Manaus was sweltering.
Skeptics will snort that only in FIFA's twisted wisdom could it seem like a good idea to take the tournament to a city that's a 24-hour drive from Moscow and nowhere near any of the other host sites – unless you think the 600 miles and change to Kazan is close, and we don't. And where conditions are so darn cold that my fffffingers are sssssticking to the kkkkkeyboard in pre-emptive panic.
To be fair, Yekaterinburg does have a brief window of comparatively balmy weather, with daily mean temperatures of around 62 degrees Fahrenheit in June, which is when the group stages of the World Cup take place. No problem then, right?
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However, the record low for the month is a shivery 27.9 degrees, so FIFA isn't out of the woods yet. And just so the locals don't have it too easy, summer also brings the heaviest rainfall. Think February in Seattle and you get the picture.
For most of the year, Yekaterinburg is carpeted in snow and gets about 1½ hours of daily sunshine in December. You can forget about the United States doing an ahead-of-time training camp there, like they did in Sao Paulo months before this event.
The city – which had an anthrax outbreak in the late 1970s and a bunch of mafia murders two decades later – is Russia's fourth largest with a population of 1.4 million and has both a Russian Premier League soccer team and a Kontinental Hockey League franchise. Then there is the thriving theater and museum scene, among Russia's finest.
So maybe it's not so bad. Didn't you always want to tell your friends that you went to the Urals?
Don't expect it to be cheap, which will be a theme of the Russia World Cup wherever you go. Round-trip flights from Moscow go for around $500 right now, even without the inevitable price gouging that accompanies any global event.
As in Brazil, Russia will have 12 stadiums. They will be spread across 11 cities with Moscow having two. One location is not even connected to the rest of Russia: Kaliningrad, located in a region separated from the bulk of the country and sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland. Look it up on a map – it's kind of weird, kind of cool and kind of impractical for World Cup purposes.
Since when did FIFA worry about the cost and convenience to its fans, who have little choice but to suck it up or stay home?
Still, it could be worse. They could have put a World Cup game in Vladivostok, a far east Russian outpost close to North Korea that is so far removed from the rest of the country that its pro team's nearest trip a few years back was a nine-hour flight away.
My, what fun.
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