MOSCOW • Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned his regional leaders not to turn World Cup arenas into "flea markets" after the quadrennial football showpiece wraps up next month.
Space around stadiums such as Moscow's Luzhniki became bustling hubs that sold everything from fruit to clothes during Russia's post-Soviet economic crisis in the 1990s. The money helped pay for the land - but also fed unregulated and crime-driven trade.
The authorities tore them down once growth picked up and Moscow acquired Western-style shopping centres. The one in Luzhniki closed its doors in 2011.
Mr Putin said last week that the World Cup, which kicks off tomorrow with the Group A opener between Russia and Saudi Arabia at the 80,000-capacity Luzhniki Stadium, must leave a lasting sports legacy in which the new arenas play an integral part.
"I want to address colleagues from the regions - no matter what, you cannot allow these venues to suddenly turn into some sort of markets like those in the mid-1990s," he said. "That is categorically inadmissible."
Russia has spent at least US$4 billion (S$5.3 billion) building or refurbishing 12 arenas in 11 host cities.
The spectacular St Petersburg Stadium is among the most expensive sporting arenas ever built, with costs around US$772 million.
The 68,000-seater arena will host Russia's Group A match with Egypt on June 19 as well as one of the semi-finals.
Former Spanish international and 2010 World Cup winner Carles Puyol said: "I went down to the pitch. It was impressive although the stadium was empty. I can imagine that playing in front of a full stadium will be fantastic and it's made me want to play here."
After years of construction and renovation, Russia's spectacular stadiums await World Cup kick-off and Fifa president Gianni Infantino said last week that Russia was "100 per cent ready" as host.
"The whole world will see what a hospitable country Russia is, how well everything is organised," said Infantino.
"Everyone will be able to witness how beautiful the stadiums are, how welcoming the country is, how the organisation and the preparations will work out. It'll be a great experience."
But the World Cup's entire expenditure adds up to about US$12 billion and Fifa is keen to see the investment pay dividends for Russia that will make other nations want to stage future tournaments.
The question of what happens to the huge arenas after the July 15 final has hounded Russia ever since it beat England to the hosting rights in 2010.
In a country of 144 million people, the average Russian Premier League attendance this season rose to 13,971, the highest in two decades, but still far below Europe's top leagues. The second tier averaged just 2,552.
Several of the 12 venues look set to linger in largely empty states after the World Cup is over.
It is a problem both for Russia and for Fifa, which has a history of leaving host countries burdened with underused stadiums, so-called "white elephants". South Africa and Brazil are still struggling to manage World Cup stadiums from the 2010 and 2014 editions.
Football club Rotor Volgograd, who play in the second-tier Russian National Football League, will occupy the new 45,000-seater Volgograd Arena despite averaging home crowds of just 3,800 last season. Another second-tier team, Baltika Kaliningrad, will inherit the 35,000-seater Kaliningrad Stadium despite having average crowds of just 6,100.
Host city Sochi did not even have a football club until a second division side were moved there last week. Others are home to teams that have not played top-flight football for years and draw just a few thousand people on their better days.
The head of Russia's Premier League has also questioned why organisers decided against fitting the arenas with roofs that would make watching games more inviting for fans in colder northern cities.
"We spent a lot of money and we need to make sure that all this infrastructure works first and foremost for the development of sport," said Mr Putin.
"And it has to be popular sport, children's sport. We have to create children's and youth teams, leagues and organised competitions."
He also stressed that the stadiums have to become "self-sufficient". Russia had earlier earmarked US$190 million to help pay for their operations in the next five years.
Mr Putin's plan for using as little of that money as possible included using the space inside the arenas for retail.
"A modern stadium is not just a football pitch. You can put anything you want there. You can install stores, cafes, restaurants... and special gyms," said the 65 year-old.
"Much will depend on regional leaders."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS