MOSCOW - Russia and FIFA on Saturday unveiled the 11 cities from the Baltic to the Urals that will host the 2018 World Cup in the most ambitious project the country has organised since the fall of the USSR.
The World Cup will be played in Moscow, former imperial capital Saint Petersburg, 2014 Winter Olympics host Sochi, Kazan on the Volga, Yekaterinburg in the Urals and six other cities largely unknown to foreigners until now.
In the televised ceremony, fronted by FIFA president Sepp Blatter and Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, Yaroslavl and Krasnodar were ousted from the original longlist of 13 cities.
Unlike the Winter Olympics, the World Cup will require the government to spend billions of dollars developing sports, tourist and transport infrastructure in hitherto under-developed areas across the country.
The most westerly host city is the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad, the former German East Prussia that borders the European Union, while the most easterly is the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, three time zones and 2,500 kilometres away.
"I am convinced that it will be a great success. Not only all of you (the people) but the president, the government, the parliament and the footballers are behind it," said Blatter.
He lavished praise on the professionalism of the organising committee, saying that Russia's preparations were ahead of schedule. "Thank you, Russia," he said.
The full list of host cities is: Moscow, Kaliningrad, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Saint Petersburg, Samara, Sochi, Rostov-on-Don, Saransk, Volgograd, Yekaterinburg.
Russia was awarded the right to host the World Cup in December 2010 in a hugely controversial decision that also gave the 2022 World Cup to Qatar and was bitterly contested by the losing bidding countries like England.
The bid was championed by Russian President Vladimir Putin whose strong political backing clearly impressed FIFA.
In an interview with state television at his residence recorded hours before the ceremony, Putin played up the long term-benefits of hosting the World Cup.
"It will be a huge construction project. But even at a time of global economic turbulence it will be a very good stimulus for the economy. There will be new jobs, new technology and new infrastructure -- and not just in sport."
But Putin said that the chief benefit of hosting the World Cup would be to attract young people to sport and "keep them off alcohol and smoking" as part of a drive to reverse Russia's recent population decline.
Russian television showed wild celebrations breaking out in the provincial cities given the chance to host games, even in those that have yet to lay a single brick to begin construction of stadiums.
"We do not yet have a stadium but we will build one," Kaliningrad governor Nikolai Tsukanov jubilantly told state television amid a mob of cheering locals.
The audience at the glitzy ceremony in Russian state television studios, compered by celebrity chat show host Andrei Malakhov, included the Russian team's Italian coach Fabio Capello who the country hopes will finally bring football glory.
Also lending gravitas were the great Soviet footballer Viktor Ponedelnik and Brazilian superstar Roberto Carlos who now works for Dagestan outfit Anzhi.
The ceremony included an appearance by Russia's now famous Eurovision entry the Buranovskiye Babushki -- a choir of elderly village women -- who sang Queen's "We Are The Champions" in their native Udmurt language.
The city of Saransk from the central region of Mordovia is possibly the most obscure host city choice and will need to embark on massive infrastructure development in order to receive the influx of foreign visitors.
Saint Petersburg and Moscow will host a semi-final apiece while Moscow's Luzhniki stadium -- set to be be boosted to a capacity of almost 90,000 -- will host the final. A completely new Moscow stadium -- Spartak -- will also host matches.
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