From Melbourne to Lisbon, the eyes of the footballing world will be focused on Kazan this Saturday for the Official Draw for the FIFA Confederations Cup 2017, when the competing nations will discover the road to the coveted title of the Tournament of Champions.
This 1000-year-old ancient Russian city – thought of as the country's third capital after Moscow and Saint Petersburg – will be under the spotlight frequently in the next two years, as Kazan will host four matches at the Confederations Cup in 2017 and six games at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.
A sporting buzz is far from a rarity in Kazan. More than a million people representing hundreds of different ethnic groups peacefully co-exist in this cultural, religious and linguistic melting pot, where mosques stand side by side with orthodox cathedrals. The majority of this mix is united by a love for sport.
“When someone who has never been here asks me what it's like, I say that Kazan is a sports city,” revealed Turkish midfielder Gokdeniz Karadeniz, who plays for local football club Rubin Kazan. “There's always some kind of sport event taking place. Whether it's football, ice hockey, volleyball or water sports, there's something to attract everyone. People also go skiing here in winter. Aside from football, I would recommend going to the hockey. Ak Bars are very popular in Kazan.”
Ak Bars Kazan have long been considered one of the best hockey teams in Russia, but Rubin Kazan's popularity in football only developed relatively recently. In 2008 and 2009 Rubin unexpectedly won and then defended the Russian Premier League title, breaking the traditional stronghold on the competition of the Moscow clubs and Zenit Saint Petersburg. Karadeniz and his team-mates then caused a potentially even bigger upset in the UEFA Champions League, where they defeated Barcelona 2-1 at the Camp Nou in the 2009/10 edition.
When someone who has never been here asks me what it's like, I say that Kazan is a sports city. There's always some kind of sport event taking place.
Across the board, 2009 was a special year for sport in Kazan. The city's clubs won practically everything: Rubin in football, Ak Bars in ice hockey and Zenit in volleyball all became national champions, while basketball team UNICS won the Russian Cup as well. “Kazan is a city of champions!” declared American volleyball star and Beijing 2008 gold medallist Lloy Ball, who was playing for Zenit Kazan at the time.
The multi-cultural Kazan has managed to attract many famous footballers over the years: Serbian Savo Milosevic, Nigerian Obafemi Martins, Paraguayan Nelson Valdez, Ecuadorian Christian Noboa, plus Argentinian pair Cristian Ansaldi and Alejandro Dominguez have all left their mark on Rubin's history.
Numerous sporting facilities were built in Kazan ahead of the 2013 Summer Universiade that was held here, including the Kazan Arena which will host matches at the Confederations Cup and World Cup. The city's passion for sport is undoubtedly set to grow even further, even though statistics in 2015 suggest more than 115,000 students already play sports regularly in Kazan, which is 42 per cent more than in 2010.
Kazan not only has a wide range of facilities in which to watch sport but also to play it as well. The Kazan Tennis Academy is one such facility, which is where the Official Draw for the FIFA Confederations Cup 2017 is being held. Tennis in Tatarstan is also in favour among the locals: brother and sister pair Marat and Dinara Safin, who at one point both held the No.1 spot on the ATP and WTA rankings respectively, can trace their heritage back to this region.
During the construction of the Kazan Tennis Academy, the same technology was applied that was used when building the Allianz Arena in Munich. When entering this ultra-modern building, the tennis stars of the future are greeted by fluorescent panels that portray a tennis net, racket and ball. However, the tennis ball has been converted to a football for the Confederations Cup draw; the tournament's official matchball Krasava currently adorns the entrance to the facility.
Having organised the Universiade in 2013, the 2014 World Fencing Championships and the 2015 World Aquatics Championships, Kazan is no stranger to large sporting events. Nevertheless, the Official Draw for the FIFA Confederations Cup 2017 on Saturday will signify start of a new era in the city's sporting life: football is now occupying centre-stage.
The city will have much to offer to the travelling football fans. For instance, the Kazan Kremlin, which is a World Heritage site, the unique archietecture of the Kazan Family Centre, the stunningly beautiful Kul Sharif Mosque, the popular Volga Embankment and much more.