You can never really ‘hate’ football, especially when your team, traditionally never ranked high, is suddenly showing flair and poise against some of the world’s best.
Being the lowest rated of the 32 teams in the World Cup, Russia thus far has been nothing but impressive.
For the Russians, it has invoked a sense of nationalism and patriotism that many believe is necessary.
At an estimated US$14.2 billion, the 2018 World Cup has been dubbed the most expensive since inception in 1930.
Just like any major sporting event, it involves not just the sport but also political and social issues of the host country.
Unfortunately, Russia in the western world is akin to being an outcast and critics have been brutal in voicing their opinions about Russia hosting the tournament.
The task of convincing people of the country’s worth, however, is harder at home. While some may applaud the initiatives for the World Cup, many have been unimpressed.
However, regardless of political affiliation or preference in sports, when your country is playing on the world stage, you support them. That is the sort of patriotism you see in Russia right now.
Professional gymnast Berenica Vetrova said football is quite alien to locals.
A native of Nizhny, Vetrova is proud that the city has produced many world-class rhythmic gymnasts.
“Football is not so popular and now we have a brand new stadium. I’m worried it won’t be fully utilised after the tournament,” she said, concerned with the money spent to build it.
When asked about Russia’s performance, she explained: “I have been following the team keenly because they are playing in Russia.
“Who cares what sport it is? I am supporting my country.”
Her partner Yasha Dubnikov, a judo instructor, was initially skeptical about Russia organising the World Cup, but he now sees things more positively.
“Watching and reading about your national team and seeing how hard they played makes you feel proud and whatever issues have been washed away at least during this one month,” he said.
“Who knows, the kids I coach judo now might be the same ones who will become interested in playing football.”
Russia won 5-0 against Saudi Arabia, a powerful victory that set the pace and was the perfect opening match for football enthusiasts.
The Russians were of course elated.
But the 3-1 win over Egypt was the clincher. The second group match became the flame that kept the spirit burning.
A couple I met at Saransk train station was heartbroken because they didn’t get to watch that game.
“We couldn’t get tickets. But it doesn’t matter now. We won!” said Valery Dershavin who felt like he was in a dream after knowing the results.
“It’s unreal, just too good to be true. Most of us thought we were just lucky in the first game because we are the host country. I’m not saying I don’t believe in our team, but I’m realistic.”
Dershavin, a supporter of Dynamo Moscow, said winning against Egypt also means that whatever happens against Uruguay in tomorrow’s match doesn’t matter anymore.
“Of course we hope to win but Russians are very realistic and to us, we have done more than expected in the World Cup,” he said.
Russians know that hosting the World Cup is important for the country to improve its global relations, but winning the matches has been an unexpectedly beautiful affair.
Kremlin spokesman Dimitri Peskov reportedly said ahead of the World Cup that it would be about Russian diplomacy, as well as football.
“It will not just be a huge, global celebration of sport, but also an intense flow of guests at the highest level,” he said.
So far, it’s looking good for the Russian team. They only need a draw with Uruguay to top Group A with a superior goal difference.
Many Russians, however, feel that no matter what the result, they have already won big. A young football fan said:
“We Russians don’t smile enough. But the World Cup and our team’s performance has put big smiles on our faces.”
The team will go against the likes of Suarez and Cavani tomorrow. It may not be easy but the journey has been worthwhile and most importantly brought the people together.