The FIFA World Cup is underway and over the next 4 weeks some 3.2 billion people on the planet will tune in to see how their teams fare against the world’s best in Russia.

And the hosts kicked off by delivering well above their fans’ expectations with a 5-0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia – not a bad effort having gone winless since October last year! That’s not to say it didn’t begin without incident – Robbie Williams’ middle finger gesture to the camera during his opening ceremony performance has garnered almost as many column inches as the game itself.

With the eyes of the world on organisers FIFA and the host nation Russia, there will be plenty of challenges over the next few weeks, but just how can they make sure they deliver an unforgettable experience for the fans heading over and watching back home?

Reducing Friction With Fast-Track Visas

One innovation for fans attending this year’s tournament was to introduce fast-track visitor visas for anyone attending games in Russia. Any fans with match tickets won’t need to apply for a visa – instead, the ‘fan ID’ on their tickets allows them multi-city access throughout the tournament.

That is much needed as the World Cup is a magnet for tourism. For the 2014 World Cup, the host country of Brazil recorded over 1.01 million tourists during the month of the tournament. This was a 191% increase from tourism in the previous year.

Fast track visas are a great innovation to ease the stress of those traveling to the games, allowing them to focus on enjoying the matches and hospitality rather than getting tangled in red tape and the complicated planning that can often accompany a trip to Russia.

Speaking A Common Language

There are 32 teams competing in the World Cup, each speaking different languages. While the official language are English, French, German and Spanish, players, referees, organisers, and fans need to be able to communicate.

Players may speak one of the official languages (likely if they play on a club team in a major European market), or they may choose to bring a translator. Attendees must determine how best to navigate the tournament themselves, and travel in the host country.

To accommodate players, tournament officials hired that are able to meet certain language requirements. For attendees, expectations must be set as to the official languages, and for viewers, games are aired on local networks with regional languages spoken, and the FIFA website is available in major languages that address most of the 32 countries attending.

The Fan Safety Challenge

There’s no getting around it, the mantle of hooliganism has loomed large over the tournament since clashes between Russian and English football fans marred the Euro 2016 tournament in France.

Getting security right, and ensuring everyone feels safe while watching the games is a must if both FIFA and the Russian organisers are going to send home hundreds of thousands of happy fans come the end of the tournament.

Reaching Out to Fans Back Home

Only a small fraction of the 3.2 billion watching audience will be there in person for the games, so FIFA needs to work hard to make sure they keep fans at home engaged as the tournament progresses… even if their team doesn’t make it through or isn’t playing.

Previously, FIFA has set up fan parks in cities around the world to and stream games live, recreating some of the matchday experience and atmosphere. And they worked well too – 94% of those who attended the inaugural Fifa Fan Fests in 2010 said they would come back next time.

Interestingly, it’s not just about watching your own team – some 86% of people said their primary reason for attending the parks was to experience the atmosphere – good news for engaging fans in countries who would have been sorely disappointed to have missed out on qualification (sorry Italy, US and Netherlands fans!).

Social media will be key too – in 2014 #WorldCup was used in 24 million posts on Twitter and with players more accessible than ever on social media it offers a chance to keep close to the action if you haven’t made it over to Russia.

Why Care About The Fan Experience?

The ultimate experience for any fan will be to see their team lift the trophy in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on July 15th. Only one team will manage it of course, and even then just 0.000081% of the watching audience will be in the stadium itself.

So the World Cup, like any sporting event needs to be about more than just winning and losing. Creating a buzz and delivering an experience that goes beyond just what we see on the pitch for 90 minutes is vital to keep fans coming back for more.

For the organisers, keeping up that excitement helps secure sponsorship as brands capitalise and associate themselves with the event. For 2018 that is worth just under $1.5 billion to FIFA.

And for Russia as host nation it’s a chance to showcase their country to a massive audience. Not always seen in the best light in the international media, Russia will be looking to challenge perceptions and send fans back with positive feedback from their experience. It’s as much a political opportunity as it is one to help boost tourism and best-case projections suggest the Russian economy could benefit to the tune of $31 billion if they get it right.

So the stakes are high off the pitch as well as on it to get it right and deliver an unforgettable experience for visitors to Russia and the watching audience around the world.