Cheers to Russia

World Cup Saudi Arabia Russia

If you grew up reading literary works of Russian writers and are also a huge fan of football, this year’s World Cup would be the perfect trip.

Russia is not somewhere you go to on a whim. Neither is the World Cup.

Combine these two, you’ll get the recipe for sleepless nights and a whole lot of time stressing over details.

Alas, here I am in the biggest country in the world and if that’s not intimidating enough, there’s the Cyrillic writing that I have no idea how to read let alone pronounce.

I’m glad though to be in Russia for the first time during an event as big as the World Cup.

I have a feeling it would be slightly different here at other times.

If your idea of Russia is based on some over-the-top generalised portrayal of Russians in Hollywood movies, then you’re in for a surprise.

The Russians whom I’ve met so far have proven to be courteous and extremely helpful despite me only knowing ‘spasibo’.

We weren’t lucky enough to get tickets to the opening game between Russia and Saudi but had planned to watch it somewhere loud and packed simply because that was the next best thing to being at the stadium.

We managed to squeeze through and found seats at this local joint where the game was shown on big screen televisions. Loud enough, good for me.

The moment I walked in and was showed to a little corner table snuggly placed between two big tables occupied by others.

I soon learned they were Russians.

So we sat through the opening ceremony while wondering ‘why Robbie Williams but then again why not’ with intermittent laughter from our neighbours.

I told my husband how I wished I understood Russian because I was curious to know what they thought of Robbie Williams. That, and what they thought of the Russian team.

Russian restaurant
The atmosphere at the restaurant in Moscow where the writer and her husband watched the Russia-Saudi Arabia match yesterday.

As I was lamenting my lack of Russian, the patrons broke into thunderous applause. Iit was the man himself – Russian president Vladimir Putin – giving a speech.

It was apparent how loved Putin is. I was intrigued, again I lamented my inability to understand Russian. It was a pleasant atmosphere.

Despite having less than three hours of sleep, I was kept entertained by the crowd. They were in high spirits and looking forward to the opening game. The Russian team, ranked 70th in the world, are definitely not favourites.

Unlike previous host Brazil which was and still is a fan favourite, Russia is considered more of an underdog, more so after news of injuries caused uncertainty in team selection.

The criticisms, however, didn’t just stop there as it became somewhat ‘messy’ during the years of preparation for this tournament. Let’s just say it didn’t run as smoothly as one would want it to.

It is no easy feat to satisfy everyone when dealing with the World Cup, easily the world’s biggest sporting event, with 3.4 billion people expected to watch the month-long tournament.

Russia reportedly spent more than US$13 billion on hosting this tournament, the most important event in the country since the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics.

It is the perfect opportunity for Russia to showcase itself to the world in a more wholesome way. All the scrutiny and high expectations have been put to good use to make it work.

Putin was said to be keen to attract the tournament to Russia to show its modern face. So far, the facilities and more importantly the volunteers have displayed a different side of Russia.

Vladimir Putin
Putin takes a picture with a young Russian. The Russian president is eager to show Russia’s modern face to the world through the World Cup.

On the political front, Russia is no stranger to scandals and negative reports. One that happened in April was too close to the World Cup and the allegations too big to ignore. Sixty American diplomats were expelled by the Kremlin – in retaliation for the US expulsion of Russian diplomats. The tit-for-tat was part of an international row over the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy in England.

Many World Cup goers were concerned about political instability and even mulled on cancelling the trip. But football fans are notorious for not being bogged down with such issues.

Football on its own is supposed to bring people together, so here we are and we’ll keep you posted.

To be fair to Russia, previous hosts suffered harsh criticisms before and after the games as well. Through recent years, Brazil had its own problems such as protests against the games while South Africa had its high crime rate and safety issues to deal with.

The Russians, being people who have survived harsh winters as commemorated by their writers and poets, this is just another of those hurdles that shall also pass.

As an outsider at the restaurant filled with Russians yesterday, I could sense the pride and joy they shared. The standing ovation for Putin was uplifting. We were definitely in a pro-Putin area.

I didn’t think it would get better than that, the only thing eclipsing that standing ovation being the first goal against Saudi.

Then the second and the third.

By the time it got to five, you could see the Russians, while raising their vodka shots, beaming with pride.

They have probably survived harsh winters but only true football fans can take that much excitement in a day.

What a glorious win that was.

Well done Russia! Sit back and enjoy the ride.