A Russian expedition during the World Cup

Shekhar Menon, a World Cup fan from India, writes about his experience during the Fifa World Cup 2018 in Russia… shuttling through the stadiums and meeting different fans from across the world.

Football is a language that unites the world. The world cup amply demonstrated that fact. My co-brother and I got tickets to the quarterfinals in Samara. Where was Samara? Google maps showed a location south-east and a long way away from Moscow, close (in Russian distances) to Kazakhstan! The size of the country is something you don’t appreciate, until that is, you learn of its 11 different time zones!
We landed in Moscow on the 6th and took the special train to Samara. Train was organised for football fans. Free of cost! Full of football crazy fans! My coupe was occupied by a diverse group — a Colombian, Chinese, Russian and me, an Indian — all united by the passion for football. This passion was in evidence in the restaurant car which was buzzing with fans of all kinds chanting their team songs! A mid-journey stop at Ruzaevka at 2:30 am threw up another surprise — the sky wasn’t dark. It looked like more like 6 pm in India — summer days are long! Everything worked like clockwork and the 14-hour journey ended right on schedule. We were in Samara by the Volga River!
The quarterfinal match between England and Sweden turned out to be a slightly dull match — quality was on the low side but the energy levels were sky high. Samara Arena Stadium was buzzing because of English fans who had turned up in numbers. The Swedes were fewer in number, but still made their presence felt in their viking horn hats. The game was, predictably, won by the English. The young team was roundly applauded by everyone for their plucky performance, especially their keeper Jordan Pickford who made a few stunning saves. Not many had predicted them to make it to the semis. The biggest star and the most applauded, though, was Gareth Southgate — the coach responsible for getting the team to punch above their weight and the man single-handedly making waistcoats a style statement!
The more interesting match that day was Russia vs Croatia. We didn’t get access to the fan park in Samara since it was already overflowing by the time we reached there. What an atmosphere! The whole of Samara was in the fan park or sports pubs around the fan park. We met up with a Swede, an Iranian and a few Russians and headed to a pub to watch the match — thankfully we got seats! It was first elation at an extra time equaliser and then heartbreak in penalties for our Russian friends. I was secretly cheering on Croatia — truth be told I was a bit scared of getting beaten up by some angry and disappointed Russian fan. My fears were unfounded, the Russians were gracious hosts and sporting in their defeat — time to change some incorrect perceptions!

Magnificent St Petersburg
We didn’t have tickets to any other matches. But the news from our Swedish friend that she got tickets just the day before the match gave us hope. We headed to St Petersburg. What a city! The city, named after Peter the Great was once the seat of Russian Tsars. The many magnificent historic buildings provided a splendid backdrop to the exciting semifinal match between France and Belgium.
This was expected to be a close match between two equally strong teams. On one side was Mbappe, Giroud, Griezmann, Pogba, Kante, Varane and Lloris. And arrayed against them was Lukaku, Hazard, De Bruyne, Kompany and Courtois — superstars in a team of stars. St Petersburg Stadium seemed filled with Belgium fans — the French fans were a smaller group. The biggest group seemed to be the still-interested Brazilian fans who were still there chanting and dancing long after their team had packed up. The match lived up to its billing with lots of attacks on both goals. Both keepers were in fine form and it was a solitary goal from an unlikely source that separated them at the end — from Umtiti!

Croats win hearts
From St Petersburg to Moscow. This time with no inclination to buy the ridiculously expensive tickets, we watched the finals in a sports pub filled with Croatian fans. Even the Brazilians had switched to supporting Croatia en masse. Everywhere we went, from Kremlin to Red Square and in the beautifully designed metro stations, Croatian fans were in numbers and in high spirits. As with the semifinals, the French were the quieter lot. The play and the score need not be repeated here, but the scenes after the match does. Croatian fans saw the writing on the walls when they were 4-1 down with about 25 minutes to play. Even after getting one back, the result seemed inevitable. Even when the disappointment was immense their pride was equally high. This was their golden generation; a team of supremely talented players captained by Luka Modric whose inspiring story brought joy to the country. Their President, Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic was a true leader — consoling the distraught Croatian players, and heartily congratulating the French. The French won, but it may be fair to say that the Croats won the hearts!
As we bid farewell to Russia we wonder if the warmth we experienced would have been the same if we were just two Indian tourists. I suspect not — it was football that united everyone for a month.