RUSSIA — This summer, I was in Russia to cover the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Looking back, it has been an incredible experience.
Russia is a big place, and traveling to and then through the country can be a daunting but rewarding task. I have regularly traveled, and on occasion lived, in this country for the past 15 years, but every time I get to go back, it’s still exciting.
For me, the experience begins at the airport. I usually fly to Russia via Munich. Once past security and in the Aeroflot (the flagship airline in Russia) waiting area, Russian becomes the main tune. What follows is a three-hour flight to Moscow Sheremetyevo – one of the capital city’s three major airports.
Moscow is giant.
Europe’s largest city truly never sleeps. The metropolis is more like an organism, always breathing, changing and morphing. It was my eighth time to the city, but every time I return, Moscow has managed to transform itself once again.
About 12 million people live here, officially – unofficial numbers, however, suggest a population of around 14 million people. Now the capital of Russia, it once served as the center of the Soviet Union.
That veneer of the former Soviet Union is still present in its architecture, infrastructure and people. Officially, 21 different ethnicities were counted during the last census, but given that Russia is home to 186 ethnic groups, the likely number of ethnicities living in the capital is much larger.
As a result, Moscow is one of the most cosmopolitan cities on the planet – going against many of the stereotypes projected on Moscow and the country as a whole. It also means Moscow is culinary heaven.
Russian food, in particular, is not exactly the most exciting. But thankfully there is a large Georgian community present in the capital and Georgian food is perhaps among the best food in the world. Hence, traveling to Moscow also means consuming as many khinkali (dumplings) and khachapuri (a Georgian bread filled with cheese and egg) as possible.
Let us leave the food alone, though, for a moment. After all, I came here for the football. For me, it all kicked off at the Luzhniki and with one of the early surprises of the tournament as Mexico defeated world champions Germany 1-0.
Whereas for Germany the defeat would start to a disastrous World Cup campaign – but we will get to that later – El Tri’s victory sparked off celebrations in and around the Luzhniki. Mexican fans partied throughout the rest of the day and into the night. It was a colourful spectacle in which even the more reserved Russians participated.
Speaking of the Russians. throughout the tournament, they were wonderful hosts. But it appeared that they struggled to warm up to the tournament. Instead of celebrating their team, they almost seemed to accommodate or participate in the parties of the other countries.
The reason for that was simple. There was not much hope that the Sbornaya could achieve much at this tournament. But that would all change on the second match day when the Russian national team were brilliant against Egypt.
The 3-1 victory was followed by celebrations on Nevsky Prospekt, the main street at the center of St. Petersburg. For many Russians, it was the final spark to join the party that had been going on in the streets of many of the World Cup cities since the start of the tournament.
It was a great experience seeing Russians finally embracing this tournament. It is, after all, a wake-up call for the country. “Russia has never experienced anything like this. Never. We never had something like this during the time of the Soviet Union,” one euphoric fan told me on the street of St. Petersburg.
The party then continued as Russia surprised the world to knock out Spain in the round of 16. It was perhaps the biggest surprise of the tournament and caused football enthusiasm never experienced before in the history of Russian, or even Soviet, football.
In Moscow, for example, the party happened every night on Nikol’skaya ulitsa, which has its beginning right in front of the infamous Lubyanka – the secret service headquarters and during the time of the Soviet Union the seat of the KGB.
“You know it is odd seeing people celebrate here. Just behind the Lubyanka, political dissidents used to be shot for speaking out against Stalin. But this is Russia; it is crazy,” a fan tells me in Moscow. For Russians, this is indeed a culture shock. But the same can be said for foreigners coming to Russia.
The Russian government, for example, provided free train travel between the different World Cup cities for fans and the media, with 734 additional trains criss-crossing the largest country on the planet.
The size of the country, however, means that some of those trips can take more than a day. An average journey from Moscow to Sochi, located right on the border to Georgia in the very south of the country, takes about 30 hours.
Train travel, however, is an integral part of the Soviet and post-Soviet tradition. Workers regularly cross this nation by train going as far as from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Pacific Coast – a journey that takes six days and five hours by train.
The seven train stations in Moscow — Leningradsky, Kazansky, Yaroslavsky, Belorussky, Kievsky, Paveletsky, Kursky and Rizhsky — connect the capital with every corner of the former Soviet Union and beyond. Hence, no World Cup trip would be complete without a train journey.
For the group stage, I undertook the journey from Moscow to St. Petersburg twice to see Russia’s victory against Egypt and Brazil beat Costa Rica. I also visited Kazan to see Germany bow out against South Korea.
Thirty hours on the train for 90 minutes of football can be tough. But it is an integral part of the Russia experience and gives fans a glimpse into the life of how ordinary citizens travel in the country.
But there is also another aspect. Throwing together fans and locals in the trains meant that the trains further added to an eclectic exchange of cultures and attitudes between the visitors and locals.
The group stage journeys, however, did not just include Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kazan but also Russia’s most exotic destination. The Olympic city of Sochi located at the foot of the Caucasus mountains – the highest mountain chain in Europe.
Arriving here on a night flight from Moscow, it is hard to believe that this city hosted the Olympic games. Sochi has a sub-tropical climate and is in complete contrast to the stereotype people have about Russia.
Located in the Caucasus, a region that is home to more than 50 different ethnic groups, Sochi shatters stereotypes about a country that is often misunderstood in the west.
To put it into an American context, Sochi is like the Miami of the former Soviet Union. Hot, humid always on the verge of a thunderstorm. I was here to witness Toni Kroos’ last-minute heroics against Sweden.
Kroos’ last-minute goal against Sweden ultimately would do little to turn the tide for Germany. But the city left a lasting impression on me as it highlights some of the wild contrasts that this country offers to anyone visiting and is also in stark contrast to some of the stereotypes we get about this country.
I was enamored by this Miami of the former Soviet Union. Enough to entice me to come back to the city to catch the quarterfinal match between Croatia and Russia.
I have to admit at that point of the tournament, I was close to exhaustion. It is difficult to complain about life at the world’s biggest football festival, but sprinting from one event to another and meeting deadlines on top of that rarely means much sleep.
Nonetheless, for Russia’s game in Sochi, I chose to undertake the biggest adventure of them all. Taking the train all the way from Moscow to the Northern Caucasus. It meant 24-hours on a train heading south through Russia’s breadbasket, the famous black soil region, toward the coast and along the Black Sea until one finally reaches Sochi.
It is a long trip. But the train was filled with football fans from many different countries and we all ended up congregating in the trains bar to eat and drink the time away. It was yet another example of how this World Cup was very much defined by experiences on the train.
As for the quarterfinal, Croatia and Russia would battle over the full 120 minutes and the Vatreni would eventually eliminate the Russian Sbornaya. Sochi, however, is a party town and despite being eliminated by Croatia, Russians ended up partying in and around the Fisht Stadium late into the night.
Three days between the quarterfinal and the semifinal meant that I had time to explore Sochi and its surroundings before heading back to Moscow. Loved by the former Soviet elite, I made my most bizarre discovery during this tournament when I visited Joseph Stalin’s green painted dacha (country house).
Painted green, the estate makes you feel like you are visiting the house of a former drug lord somewhere in the Caribbean. It is a bizarre place that makes one briefly forget that you are in Russia. Thankfully, I have flight booked back to Moscow the next day, where I saw out the conclusion of the tournament.
Seeing Croatia eliminate England and then playing the final against France were definitely the football highlights of this trip. After all, this was my first World Cup. But in the past 15 years, I have come to appreciate Russia for much more than just its football. It is a large country diverse in its people, cultures and environment, which explains why the place is still more often than not misunderstood by outsiders.