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OUR MOLE IN MOSCOW: World Cup heroics gives Russians footballing fever

OUR MOLE IN MOSCOW: World Cup heroics gives Russians footballing fever

MOSCOW: World Cup heroics gives Russians footballing fever: Russia have been sending people to space for more than 50 years, but on Sunday they sent their entire population into orbit. At least that’s how it felt under the lights of the Luzhniki Stadium as the World Cup hosts beat Spain. Four flawless penalties in the decisive shoot-out proved enough to eliminate the 2010 champions and book the hosts an unlikely place in the quarterfinals. 

Sat in the stands, it was hard not to smile as the majority of the 78,000 spectators screamed and hooted and hugged and tooted. They posed for selfies and made videos with their smartphones and jumped and screamed and generally revelled in their rare glory. The players down on the pitch savoured the love too — it has been quite a turnaround this past two weeks.

Before Russia kicked off their campaign against Saudi Arabia last month, they could not even guarantee the support of their compatriots. Now, having confirmed their place in the last-eight, they can count among their newfound fans an eclectic bunch of international travellers that include five rowdy Americans with Russian flags, two reserved Chinese with painted faces, a group of Brazilians with half-and-half shirts, an Ecuadorean subtly sporting red-white-and-blue wristbands, and a lone Egyptian wearing a Russian-style fur hat. 

The hosts, as is often the case at World Cups, are now everyone’s second team. Living in their country, it is all too obvious the sense of importance to the locals, the importance not only of providing prideful performances, but of ensuring the tournament retains that special feeling that only comes with the hosts still being involved. The match was not pretty, but Russia showed spirit and energy in abundance. Nobody could argue with the result.

If the thunderous roar inside Luzhniki seemed to last an age, the noise outside the stadium on the streets of Moscow was deafening. Women stood on top of cars, men on top of lampposts; 4x4s paraded down the main boulevards with flags hanging out the windows. The metro, accustomed to scenes of silence as people enter and exit the daily rat race, became one massive festive atmosphere with strangers exchanging grins and hugs and high-fives. 

I’ve never seen Russians smile so much and I got the impression many Moscovites had never seen their countrymen smile so much either. 

“My heart is doing crazy things just now,” said one fan, beaming. “My head too. I cannot believe it!”

——

SOCHI: World Cup pace makes last 15 days feel like 50 days: Friday marked the first football-free day since Saudi Arabia opened the World Cup on June 14 against hosts Russia. It may be only a little more than two weeks but it feels like at least a month ago such is the vast amount of happenings that have taken place since that unforgettable 5-0 defeat. Fifteen days going on 50. 

In that time, 32 national teams have each played three group games, scoring 122 goals, including 16 in second-half stoppage time. With the help of VAR, we have seen 24 penalties — more than have been awarded in the entirety of any of the previous 32-team World Cups. We were also provided proof that to pass is to progress, with teams that qualified having completed an average of 21 per cent more passes than eliminated teams.  

In terms of the Arab sides, we’ve watched Egypt’s Essam El-Hadary crowned the oldest player to ever play at the Fifa showpiece and Mo Salah score the Pharaohs first goal from open play since 1934. We witnessed Tunisia get their first World Cup win since 1978 and Saudi their first since 1994. Morocco, the best of the four, went home with just a single point as Africa will be without a representative in the last 16 for the first time in 36 years.

Meanwhile, I’ve caught five overnight trains, travelled 5,555km and spent close to 77 hours on a railroad. I’ve rented nine different apartments in five different cities and slept in single beds, double beds, couches, trains, and even, briefly, some bedding on a floor in Volgograd. I’ve met people from all 32 countries and spotted fans from what feels like another 32 that didn’t qualify, such as Lebanon, Ethiopia, El Salvador, Haiti, Scotland, China, Bhutan and Bahrain.

And while this was the first day of no football, it was by no means a day with no commitments. Uruguay’s Oscar Tabarez and Luis Suarez and Portugal’s Fernando Santos and Adrien Silva both spoke with media inside Sochi’s Fisht Stadium ahead of their Round of 16 clash, while an hour up the road, at the Brazilian team’s training base, Casemiro also took questions. 

With 16 more days to go, there will be plenty more to say and see, plenty more penalties to sky or score, and plenty more kilometres to wrack up in the process of trying to catch it all as it happens. Fifteen days going on 50? Soon enough it’ll feel like four weeks going on four months.

——

SOCHI, Planes, trains and automobiles: Russian airlines do not have the best reputations in the aviation industry. Back in the 1970s, Aeroflot would regularly experience upwards of 20 crashes per year, an enormous number compared to other countries. By the 1990s, the situation in the country was so bad the International Air Transport Association advised against all air travel in the Soviet Union, instead recommending train travel.

Nowadays, local airlines are much improved with Aeroflot leading the way — it even has a sponsorship deal with Manchester United. It is just as well given the number of tourists in the country for the World Cup and the vast distances between host cities. Train travel can provide a fantastic window into Russian culture, but it is also time consuming and when you have places to be on specific days, the idea of a 25-hour train sometimes just doesn’t work.

I took my first domestic flight of the tournament earlier today, departing Moscow for the Black Sea resort of Sochi, which will host the Round of 16 match between Uruguay and Portugal. I had been warned by a lovely Saudi Arabian family to expect the worst at the airport and they were not wrong. 

It felt like half of Moscow was flying from Domodedevo. The automatic revolving door was like something out of a comedy sketch, stopping and starting and taking an age to move a couple of inches. Inside, the massive departures hall was devoid of big check-in boards and with no gate number printed on my ticket, it all made for an unnecessarily uncomfortable afternoon.

With some teams underperforming (Hallo Die Mannschaft!) and others exceeding expectations (Kunichiwa Japan!) many fans and media here have had to switch plans, cancelling trains, extending hotel stays, etc. I was no different and found myself this morning trying to book a last-minute flight to cover the tie between Brazil and Mexico. 

My Airbnb host helped me and after an hour of searching in Russian we finally found some surprisingly cheap, non-refundable flights to Saransk. All the timings worked perfectly, so I gave him my credit card and he rapidly entered the details. Success. 

It was only afterwards did I double-check the tournament schedule, realising with dread that the match is not in Saransk, but rather Samara. It did not take me long to realise why the flights were so cheap. With the city having already hosted its last match of the tournament, nobody here for the World Cup is going to Saransk.

Well, nobody except me. D’oh.

—–

MOSCOW, New vantage points way to VAR:  Regardless of whether it is Watford, Al-Wasl or the World Cup, covering football matches is always a privilege. Usually, as media, we are positioned close to the halfway line, high up in the stands. Depending on the profile of the game, we may have a television providing replays and access to desks and wifi and up-to-the-minute statistics.

Sometimes, however, when the demand is too high for the capacity of the media seats, we are provided a place to sit and nothing else. Some people complain that they cannot work properly without access to replays and plug sockets and a place to rest their laptop. They would have a point. Others accept it and make the best of what they are given.

Brazil’s match against Serbia on Tuesday night was oversubscribed, but after a scrimmage for tickets, I managed to snare one. My seat didn’t have any of the facilities a journalist usually requires to file a match report, but it was on the edge of the penalty box almost as close to the field as you can get. And it was brilliant. Sitting in the second row at the Spartak Arena, I was so close to the action that the sprinklers at half-time sprayed my laptop with mist. 

It’s rare for us to get to sit so close to the pitch; close enough to hear their shouts and the thump of tackles. I watched life-size Gabriel Jesus laughing with life-size Philippe Coutinho after an early chance came to nothing. I noted the speed with which life-size Neymar’s feet move when he is running at full pace and I noted the speed with which life-size Neymar rolls when he goes to ground. I clocked the sinewy legs of life-size Fagner and the way Paulinho and Willian look not at the ball while defending but rather at their opponent’s face.

It was all greatly beneficial in terms of proving a better insight into the beautiful game. Yet I’m glad I was not writing a match report. I found it particularly difficult to ascertain how close an attack at the opposite end of the pitch was to the goal, and when the match finished, I had the erroneous impression Neymar had spurned at least two great scoring chances from close range. I also completely missed two of Vladimir Stojkovic’s saves, a foul by Nemanja Matic and could barely see Thiago Silva connect with his headed goal. 

The need for a TV replay is undoubtedly essential at times. VAR, despite its problems, is routinely proving this.

—–

VOLGOGRAD, Russian hospitality an early winner at this World Cup: There are a few things you can be sure of at a World Cup: South American fans singing on the streets until six in the morning, England fans getting overexcited after seeing their side beat a minnow, and accommodation being as hard to find inside the host country as my beloved Scottish national team. 

The lack of affordable accommodation options is always a problem at football tournaments. But it forces you to step outside your comfort zone. For some, that might mean simply sleeping in a single bed rather than a double. For others it might mean a hammock on a boat rather than someone’s spare room. 

In Russia, I’ve been staying mostly with locals. Sometimes that means sneaking in quietly after a game in order not to wake my hosts, other times it means prolonged exchanges while standing in the doorway of the bathroom using Google Translate to ask how to get hot water. 

In Volgograd, however, I immediately knew this was going to be different. I was only staying with Konstantin for one night, but he met me at the train station wearing a Sigur Ros T-shirt, a smile as omnipresent as the ink covering his arms, and a bottle of Irn-Bru. “It is Scottish drink, right?” he asked laughing. 

After introducing me to his wife and later his son, we sat at their kitchen table and talked about everything from Icelandic football and Danish music to cucumbers, crazy babushkas and an age-old Russian idiom about a wolf, a forest and work that is not pressing. 

The night before Nigeria were due to face Iceland, tea and chocolates were served and when I woke up on the day of the match fresh coffee and cake was awaiting me. Two bowls of steaming hot borsch followed. If I return home overweight after this World Cup, it will be in large part because of the Russian hospitality of Kostya and Olga. 

Before I left, they handed me a load of stickers, postcards, fridge magnets, and a bag of fruits. “You are a very good guest because you never say no to our food,” said Kostya. “This is important Russian tradition.”

We swapped contact details and said our goodbyes – he in perfect English, me in terrible Russian. It had only been a couple of days, but it felt like we had been friends for years. He lifted his shirt to show another tattoo. It read: “In my heart”. 

—–

VOLGOGRAD, Russian smiles shattering ‘stony stereotypes’: There is a belief in Russian culture that laughing for no reason is a sign of stupidity. The consequence has traditionally meant a series of stern and unsmiling faces in the streets and on public transport, so with an estimated 1.5 million tourists flooding the country to attend the World Cup, FIFA and two major Russian rail companies organized smiling lessons for staff. 

When I visited Saint Petersburg last year for the Confederations Cup, I noted the lack of animation on the subway lines, in the shops, and in and around the stadiums. Apart from the volunteers with their big foam fingers high-fiving anyone who passed, the majority of the population were quiet, reserved and largely kept themselves to themselves. If approached, they would be receptive, helping however they could, but they never actively offered assistance. 

Twelve months on and there has been a marked change. Russians are now well aware of the cold, negative perceptions of them outside their motherland and are revelling in the opportunity to shatter the stereotypes; to show the real side of their country and its people. Now, they are being proactive. Their figurative frowns have gone.

I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been approached at a metro station or on the street by a local asking if I need help (which I invariably do). Maybe it’s because my itinerary has yet to take me north of Moscow, but it also seems they are a lot more willing to speak English — after I have exhausted my very limited Russian, of course.

In the more southern cities of Rostov-on-Don and Volgograd, where perhaps the sight of a fumbling foreigner is not so common, phrases such as “privyet” (hello) and “spasibo” (thank you) are greeted with giggles. Yet so long as their level of English is sufficient, without exception the questions soon come: “Where are you from? What do you think of Russia? You like?”

It’s hard not to when the welcome is so warm. In a small bohemian cafe not far from the monolithic Motherland Calls memorial, it’s possible to find the perfect example of Russia’s newfound warmth and openness.
Behind the counter, in English, a sign reads: “Smile! You’re in Volgograd”.

——

VOLGOGRAD, Wartime remembrance gives some much-needed perspective: In Russia, June 22 is known as the “Day of Sorrow” and marks the moment Nazi Germans invaded the former Soviet Republic. It is recognized each year as a chance to remember those who lost their lives protecting their country in what we refer to as World War II and Russians refer to as the Great Patriotic War. 

It is estimated around 35,000 people died in Stalingrad — now Volgograd — and on the eve of this year’s commemorations, I was invited to a special performance at the foot of the city’s famous The Motherland Calls! statue. You’ve likely seen images of the statue in the media — a massive grey-stone figure of a woman with a sword in one hand and beckoning you with her other. When it was finished in 1967 it was the tallest statue in the world. It remains the tallest in Europe.

On Thursday night, I stood alongside Mexicans and Uruguayans, Icelanders and even a few Nigerians as what seemed like thousands of Russians marched up a winding pathway with remembrance candles in their hands. The pathway is peppered with soldiers’ graves and to get there they had to pass through a cylindrical building that carries an eternal flame and the names of more than 7,500 people who lost their lives during the battles in Stalingrad.

An ensemble of musicians sang as videos of the war were projected onto a wall and clever lighting had the monolithic statue appear first to wear a blue dress, then be involved in a battle with chains and ropes, then be struck by lightning, turn to ice and finally thaw to red.

None of us watching had seen anything like it and although we didn’t understand any of what was being said (my Russian friend explained that it was mainly words of commemoration and remembrance) it was hard not to be impressed.

The event was understandably sombre and nostalgic, a far cry from what those same fans from Nigeria and Iceland will be a part of today inside the Volgograd Arena, which sits majestically in the statue’s shadow and was on Thursday lit up in the colours of the Russian flag. Both countries still have a real chance of progressing to the knockout stages of the World Cup, but with Croatia having won their two games so far, they can’t both qualify. 

With that in mind, it never hurts to retain perspective. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                ——

ROSTOV-ON-DON, Syrians join the festival atmosphere in Russia … for England?: Outside the FIFA Fan Fest, three men wrapped in Syrian flags and scarves hoisted aloft the World Cup trophy and sang words that were not only indecipherable through warbling jubilation but also indecipherable because they were a mixture of two languages: Arabic and Russian.

The three men, it would turn out, are all residents of Rostov-on-Don, this quiet and tranquil city that boasts a picturesque river, a ‘touching zoo’, and a football stadium that seats 45,000 spectators. Kheder Arous, the chattier of the three men, explained that he and his friend Ziad Abdullah are students from Syria while their other pal is a Rostov native.

England had just beaten Tunisia 2-1 but the national team colours of neither side were easy to spot. Instead, a smorgasbord of national shirts from Uruguay to Switzerland, Mexico to Iceland were on show. Given Kheder and Ziad were draped in Syrian flags and speaking Arabic, I presumed they were supporting their brothers from the Middle East and North Africa. I was wrong. 

“Tunisia? No. I was supporting England,” Kheder said smiling as a mass of sweating fans dressed in yellow and green swayed past singing in Portuguese about Pelé and his thousand goals. “Many of us do. It’s because of the Premier League. I support Man United, but players like Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli, Rashford, Kane… we know them all so we show our support.”

Naturally, they also all support Russia, the country that has provided them such a warm welcome since leaving their war-torn home. While Ziad is keen to return when he finishes his Masters in Chemistry, Kheder is not so sold on the idea. “I love life and like to live. There it is difficult. Plus I have another passport, so I can stay here forever if I want.”

As his group was swallowed up by fans of other nations, the chanting and jumping and posing with the famous golden statuette started all over again. They both looked delighted — it is presumably not every day they get to celebrate with tourists from around the world. For a moment I tried to imagine the scene had Syria won their playoff matches against Australia last year. My daydream did not last long. I am handed a phone. 

“Please,” came the voice. “Take photo. World Cup”

——

ST PETERSBURG: The dateline of this blog may read St Petersburg, but I might actually be closer to Moscow. A more exact dateline would probably be ‘IN TRANSIT’. 

Since the World Cup kicked off, I’ve yet to sleep in a bed. And have no plans to do so again until at least tomorrow night. While Russia is a gargantuan country, one of the most praiseworthy elements of its World Cup so far is the free travel provided by the host country. Month-long tournaments can be expensive affairs for the hordes of travelling fans, many of whom save for years to make the pilgrimage. 

In Brazil four years ago, where domestic flights were essential, I ended up boarding 29 planes in 28 days. It was hectic and hassle and highly time-consuming, but it was the only way to attend the games I needed to attend. Many fans hoping to follow their team throughout instead chose to base themselves in one city to save the expense of much-inflated flight prices. 

Here in Russia, it’s a different story. Not only do matchday ticket-holders enjoy free travel on the local metro, tram and bus systems, but they can also enjoy free train travel between host cities. I’ve been shuttling up and down the 215km track between Moscow and St Petersburg these past couple of nights, but will tonight head south, making the 1000km trip to Rostov-on-Don, where Saudi Arabia will play their second group game against Uruguay. 

While train travel provides a cheaper alternative to flying, it can obviously mean long, long journeys. My train from Volgograd to Moscow next month will take 24.5 hours, but with bunkbeds and wifi and a cafe serving hot food, for those without Russian dispatches to write, the train offers a perfect setting to relax and zone out for a few hours, complete with postcard views out the window.

With the small compartments sleeping four to a cabin, there is also a great chance to meet other people enjoying a World Cup adventure. On Thursday night, I shared a cabin with a 60-year-old Nicaraguan woman who said she is travelling alone and has tickets for four games. A resident of Tampa, in Florida, she was on route to St Petersburg to watch Iran versus Morocco.. 

“I don’t really understand the rules,” she said. “But I just love the atmosphere.”

—–

MOSCOW: If love conquers all, language must surely threaten to do the opposite: it can ruin the best laid plans, get you in unnecessary trouble, and — in Russia at least — almost always results in you heading the wrong way on public transport.

Brazil 2014 posed problems for non-Portuguese speakers, but at least some of the words appeared similar: Maracana is Maracanã, taxi is still taxi, hotel is hotel. Here, the words appear in Cyrillic, so ‘STOP’ looks more like ‘CTON’. With some of the letters the same, it lures you into a false sense of security; you think you can transliterate and understand more than you do. 

A veteran World Cup goer who I was speaking to the other day said this summer is proving more difficult than the 2002 tournament in Japan and Korea. At least there, you knew you had no idea what anything said so were always on guard. Here, if not careful, you can become complacent in your orienteering and end up totally lost — and with nobody to ask for help.

Another issue is that many Russian landmarks seem to have various different names. When I reserved a train ticket through FIFA’s free ride programme, the departure station in Moscow was marked as Passazhirskaya Station. When the official ticket arrived in my inbox, the point of departure was marked as Oktiabrskaia Station. 

I went with the name on the ticket and found Oktiabrskaia station easy enough through Google Maps. On arrival, however, I quickly discovered there is no railway there, only a metro — and it certainly did not go as far as Saint Petersburg. I searched again, this time for Passazhirskaya only to find it is located on the other side of the city. 

A random online forum cleared up the confusion: “Oktiabrskaia also goes by the names Passazhirskaya and Kazansky and Yaroslavsky . However, it most commonly known as Leningradsky Station…” 

Yup, cleared up.

With my departure time fast approaching, the metro was no longer an option so I tried calling an Uber, which redirected me to the Russian equivalent Gett. With the geolocation on my phone playing up in Russia (for some unknown reason) the taxi did not know where to pick me up. After a few frustrating conversations with random people on the street, I eventually sussed out my location and ‘got a Gett’. 

The Google Maps issue was an example of how phone apps can’t be relied on as they are at home. Another? Saturday’s match between Argentina and Iceland in Moscow was held at Spartak Stadium. If you, however, entered “Spartak Stadium” into Google Maps to calculate the quickest way to get there, it would direct you towards Spartak Stadium in northeastern Moscow. Instead, to reach the game, you needed to enter Otkritie Arena, which would then provide directions to the newly-rebranded Spartak Stadium, situated in northwestern Mocow. “Uma confusão”, as they would say in Brazil. 

It has only been a few days since the opening match, but the fact I have yet to miss a train or game is amazing. Now I am on a 20-hour train from Moscow to Rostov-on-Don, which is 1,300km away from Rostov — which naturally is the destination that was marked on my ticket.

—–

MOSCOW: If, as the saying goes, time moves slowly in a Russian winter, it moves at the speed of a Maglev train the week before a World Cup. It is seven days since I touched down in Moscow, yet it feels more like one very long, sleep-deprived 24-hours. Perhaps it is because the sun sets after 9pm and the sky is white again before 4am. Or maybe it is because with more than 2,000 international media having descended on the country, there is news breaking with all the regularity of a drummer in an Arabic marching band.

This is the third World Cup I have had the privilege to cover and the thrill never wears off. Not only because it is elite international football in a country that is rolling out its red carpet for visitors, but there are few, if any, events in the world that bring together so many nationalities.

Outside the Luzhniki Stadium ahead of the first match between Saudi Arabia and Russia, you could walk for five minutes and pass swarms of fans from Mexico and Haiti, Peru and Ethiopia, Brazil and Nicaragua. There were fake sheikhs, Lionel Messi doppelgängers and a man dressed as Father Christmas. There was a gargantuan African head-to-toe in red, white and blue body-paint.

Yet it is not necessarily always the fun-filled, five-week festival your friends and family tend to think. It can be a highly pressurised environment with a lot of stress and sleepless nights. Especially when, on the eve of the opening game, in a taxi on the way to the FIFA Congress, with news filtering through that Spain’s Julen Lopetegui was about to be fired and a decision on who would win hosting rights for the 2026 World Cup just hours away … the motherboard of my laptop decided to explode. 

The timing could not have been worse. No computer means lost articles means frustrated bosses means no future assignments means a potential early flight home. With five weeks of features lined up and a travel itinerary that involves changing cities every other day, I feared the worst. 

Fortunately, I found a small shop in Moscow with staff that speak good English. Not only will they replace the motherboard, they have given me a spare laptop — fitted with my own hard-drive — to use for the few days it will take for the motherboard to arrive. They have been an absolute Godsend without whom I’d have been totally lost. Instead now I am just lost on the Moscow Metro, but that is for another day…

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