Nick Miller spent the first three weeks of the World Cup travelling around Russia, seeing eight games in six different cities. Here are a few things he noticed along the way…
1) Before the World Cup, and bubbling along during it, we have seen once again the debate about whether it remains the pinnacle of the modern game. We’ll not go through it all again, but I’ll tell you this: when you’re there, it feels like the pinnacle. I was only there for the first two rounds, and didn’t exactly attend all the big ticket games (although the last 20 minutes of Belgium vs Japan was among the most extraordinary passages of football I’ve witnessed live), but all the while I was aware that I was experiencing something special And I was only watching, never mind what it might feel like to be involved.
There seems to be less appetite for the intangibles these days, but football matters the most when you can feel it in your gut. In my gut, it still felt like the most exciting few weeks of football you can have.
2) At every game – every game, mind – at some point, usually around 15 or so minutes in, a chant of ‘Ross-iy-a! Ross-iy-a!’ would go up around the ground, and white, blue and red flags would appear from nowhere. Who knows whether there would have been such an ostentatious display of national pride had Russia been as rubbish as billed, but it was as if the home fans were just keen to remind everyone else that this was their World Cup.
3) Apparently you’re usually in for a fine if you drink in the Moscow streets. Putting up banners is a quick way of getting your collar felt. And if you’re thinking about having a demonstration, you might as well just hand yourself in to the local nick to save everyone a bit of time. But after Russia beat Spain, Moscow was pulsing. Jubilant supporters were quite literally dancing in the streets, banging drums, singing, faces painted. One group in a small park did the only sensible thing you can in such circumstances: they gathered around a busking band who appeared to be Russia’s answer to Mogwai, noted party soundtrackers.
Russia has changed for a month, a new, looser society, your disciplinarian uncle cutting loose at a wedding. The sense is that things will return to normal after the tournament, but could the World Cup actually bring about a more permanent change? ‘Locals, especially in Moscow, begun to wonder why the privileges extended to visiting fans are not available to them every week of the year,’ wrote Moscow-based journalist Eliot Rothwell for Eurosport. ‘If Russian public space can be like this in June and July, many wonder, why not in August, in September, in 2019 and beyond?’
4) Who knows whether changes will actually be longer-lasting, but it did serve to emphasise that this World Cup is ultimately a facade, a country given a lick of paint and a friendly blue exterior by FIFA. That the loosening of rules was even made for the World Cup indicates that the country is putting on a front, to create as good an impression as possible for the wider world. That need not being an entirely bad thing, but it’s still well to keep in mind.
5) Not that the place is a utopia of free love and permissive behaviour. Having to be registered with the police when you spend more than a few days in city, plus the possibility of being randomly stopped at a metro station and asked to produce your credentials for no obvious reason, are reminders of what sort of state this is. Mostly these were, on the surface, minor inconveniences, but also provided emphasis that freedom in Russia only goes so far.
6) Before the tournament, if you told someone you were going out to Russia they would suck their teeth like a scheming mechanic and warn you to be careful. That sort of reaction was understandable, given the horror stories told about Russian hooligans stalking every street corner, armed to the teeth with iron bars and a disdain for the decadent west. One security briefing advised against using public transport and to take taxis instead on the basis that they would be safer. That counsel didn’t exactly take into account the free-form driving style favoured by most cabbies.
But if you listened to anyone who had spent any significant time in Russia, the general assessment was “As long as you’re not an idiot, you’ll be fine”, advice that holds up in most countries and cities. Simply put – and this is said while touching wood, given there’s still a week or so left – there was never likely to be any real trouble because the country wouldn’t allow it. Their PR opportunity was too important to let the sort of lively boys who ran amok in Marseille two years ago ruin it by trying to stove an Englishman’s head in. Aside from a bomb scare in Rostov, which turned out to be a false alarm, I neither saw nor heard of much trouble at all.
7) That said, you may well have seen people return from Russia declaring that all the pre-tournament talk was pernicious fake news, that everything bad we’ve been told about the country was incorrect and what a land it was. To make such sweeping statements because you personally were not chucked in the chokey for saying the wrong thing is staggeringly naive, at best. Russia remains a country where opposition is snuffed out with extreme prejudice, homosexuality legislated against and myriad other awful things that Amnesty International take a dim view of.
In short, if you went to the World Cup and returned convinced that Russia is a problem-free state, you probably require a thorough talking to about judging things purely on your own personal experience, and that doing so can be incredibly dangerous. It is not hard to recognise that, just because you did not witness them, it is possible for bad things to exist.
8) I watched games in St Petersburg, Samara, Rostov, Ekaterinburg, Nizhny Novgorod and at the Spartak stadium in Moscow. All, aside from probably the latter, were spacious, gleaming examples of modern football architecture, comfortable places to watch football, as long as you’re cool with sound systems capable of loosening your bowels to the point of soilage.
Most impressive was St Petersburg, an extraordinary behemoth of a stadium which is also up there with the most scenic in the world. One way of getting there is to take a walk through a delightful, tree-lined park, eventually reaching the ground which is right on the sea front. A close second though, was Nizhny, particularly for the exterior architecture, the actual stands surrounded by a circle of white pillars which make it look a little like the new Yankee Stadium, or a slightly less mad version of those sadly shelved plans for the redevelopment of Stamford Bridge.
9) What’s interesting is what will happen to those grounds after the World Cup. Of the 12 venues, 11 are under five years old and the Luzhniki was significantly renovated: essentially, an entire football infrastructure was built for these five weeks. All but two of the grounds have a capacity over 40,000, and the smallest is 33,000. But when the tournament is over, five of them will host teams in the second division, including FC Dynamo of St Petersburg, who are upping sticks and moving, US-style, out of Zenit’s shadow to Sochi. And if you go to any of those games, you’ll have plenty of leg room: clubs in the Russian second tier average something like 3,000 fans per match, meaning there are going to be some pretty echoey encounters across the land next season.
10) Hopefully this doesn’t come across as patronising, but some parts of Russia really are astoundingly beautiful: Samara, Nizhny Novgorod and Rostov-on-Don have their fair share of grim parts and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them as honeymoon destinations, but if you know where to look/accidentally stumble upon it, you’ll find some remarkable scenery. And there ends the Partridge section of this piece.
11) It’s an interesting experience being at a World Cup, particularly when you’re travelling around a lot as I did (eight games, six cities, 13 flights and a train journey), because you actually miss quite a lot of the football. I half snatched Croatia’s defenestration of Argentina in an airport departure lounge, was on a plane for Russia’s astonishing rout of Saudi Arabia, missed most of Portugal v Spain because of post-match working duties. This, hopefully, will not come across as a complaint, but if you want an overall impression of the actual football in Russia, don’t ask the people who are out there.
12) You’ll probably have seen this on the TV, but not only you could buy a pint at the games, you could take that pint to your seat. Admittedly you could only buy Budweiser, but it’s a start. Just another reminder that England really does need to grow up when it comes to booze at football.
13) Occasionally on TV you’ll see a shot of the stands on the side of the cameras, and you’ll notice that almost the whole of one side of most grounds is taken up by blue desks. That, friends, if you didn’t know, is the media: written press, social media people, TV commentators, radio presenters and a few who seem to have got their hands on a press pass but are just there for the vibes. From a journalist’s perspective, it’s impossible not to feel a bit guilty, given the amount of space taken up by us lot: there’s plenty of talk about hospitality and corporate tickets taking the place of ‘real’ fans, but it would feel a little hypocritical not to point out that the media takes its share of space too.
For example, at the Rostov Arena there were about 200 media seats, but because because they have to fit in desks and so forth in, I’d guess that you could get four standard seats for every press one, perhaps more. So at a conservative estimate that’s 800 punters replaced by the media, in a stadium with a normal capacity of 45,000. Not a colossal percentage, perhaps, but still worth noting.
14) Some minor cultural observations: It seems that the old trick of, if a foreigner doesn’t understand what you’re saying you just say it louder and slower, isn’t just an English thing; the Moscow metro really is lovely; I would rate Russia, Moscow and St Petersburg in particular, just behind Vietnam in the ‘crossing the road is a contact sport’ stakes; being in a place where citizens from around the world are gathering, you realise how much we English fetishise, for good or bad, the humble orderly queue.
15) ’Freed From Desire’ made frequent appearances on in-stadium pre-match playlists. Will Grigg has a lot to answer for. On the other hand, they played ‘Thunderstruck’ by AC/DC too, so swings and roundabouts.
16) If you’ll excuse this one to finish, I was at a World Cup and someone was paying me to be there. Part of this job is to be cynical, but what a joyous privilege it was.
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