Friday, June 22, St Petersburg, Brazil - Costa Rica
This is the World Cup of sleeper trains. The local organisers have laid on more than 700 free trains for fans and media during the World Cup. They have become the beating heart of the tournament off the pitch, a melting pot of cultures. The trains are equipped with wifi, plugs and a restaurant carriage, but above all they offer easy travel, comfort and friendship. On the way to the Brazil game in Petrograd, I meet an Egyptian fan who has flown in from Dubai to watch the SeleÁ„o. She laments Egyptís early exit, but hopes that the Arab flag will still fly high in Russia. Morocco, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia, however, will all crash out in the group stages.
The trains, crisscrossing Russia, donít just connect cities and villages, but in 2018, they also connect the world and the visiting fans with Russians. At last yearís Confederations Cup, Russians were passive. They were reserved and quiet. On the streets there was a lack of animation, but that has changed. Alacrity has replaced Russian stereotypes: in the Russian culture there is a belief that laughing for no reason is a sign of stupidity and as a result, Russians donít smile often and look stern, but this year locals have been revelling in the opportunity to smash those perceptions. They offer help even when you donít need it - in Moscow, in St Petersburg, in Nizhny Novgorod. Even among the local non-football fans, curiosity has taken over.
Back in St Petersburg, the yellow and blue Brazilians have a lot of schadenfreude about ĎMessyí, but Brazil underwhelm against Costa Rica, stifled by a resilient five-men Ticos rearguard and the memories of the last World Cup. Coach Tite tumbles during his celebration and Neymar tears up, showing Brazil got the emotional tone of the game wrong.
Sunday, June 24, Nizhny Novgorod, England - Panama
The yellow and blue Brazilians (Photo by Samindra Kunti)
Itís time for some culture! At the Ulitsa Semashko, number 19, in downtown Nizhny Novgorod, just a stone's throw away from the city's Kremlin, the museum of Maxim Gorki remembers the extraordinary life of the Soviet writer, the founder of the socialist realism literary method. Gorki wrote the book ĎMother,' opined in the newspaper Pravda and defied, first, the Tsar, and then Lenin.
It took us an hour to find the right address, but the museum, with its dimly-lit exhibitions rooms, showcasing memorabilia from Gorki's life, including his writing cabinet and mimeograph he gave to workers, oozes the ambience of the literary salons in which Gorki participated and cultivated intellectualism. It is but one of the many stories that in Nizhny Novgorod, a city built at the confluence of the rivers Oka and the mighty Volga. In the recent past, Nizhny Novgorod was associated with military secrecy and exiled dissidents as a city off-limits to foreigners.
We head slowly to the stadium, but not before I spill mors, a Russian fruit drink based on lingonberry and cranberry, on my polo. With no backup T-shirt, I pull out my pullover. Itís boiling hot, topping 30 degrees, and my colleagues chuckle: I must be about the only person in the stadium wearing a pullover in these tropical temperatures. The central American fans vastly outnumber their English counterparts. They have crisscrossed Europe - via Rome, London, Berlin - to reach the Russian capital, but they wonít witness a fairytale. England donít simply defeat the World Cup debutants, but annihilated Panama 6-1. But in a wider context that matters little. Panama fans will cherish memories of a lifetime. In the 78th minute, they go berserk when substitute Felipe Baloy pokes home their first ever goal at a World Cup. Never has a consolation goal been celebrated so wildly.Tuesday, June 26, St Petersburg, Argentina - Nigeria
After the game, in which Marcos Rojo delivered salvation for the South Americans, the Argentina fans turned the St Petersburg metro lines into a party hall. They played pipes, beat drums and sang the greatest hits together. ďBrazil, decime que se siente. Tener en casa tu papa. Te juro que aunque pasen losanos. Nunca nos vamos a olvidar. Que el Diego te gambeteo. (Brazil, tell us how it feels, to have your dad come home and boss you around. I swear that even if years pass, I will never forget that Maradona outskilled you.)Ē
This World Cup again has a distinct Latin flavour with Argentineans, Mexicans, Colombians, Peruvians and Brazilians roaming around Russia in huge numbers, vastly outnumbering European fans - and some will be hoping for an extended stay.