Russian pubs not exactly hopping with World Cup fever
In Nizhny Novgorod there was no sense this was Russia’s ‘a nation holds its breath’ moment
Russian soldiers guard the Fan Fest area in Nizhny Novgorod. There was no sense of the city coming to a standstill. Photograph: EPA
It’s not a true football city: in winter, the Volga freezes so hard that Nizhnyians can drive their cars across its frozen surface. But by then they are too busy watching ice hockey, the sport that rules here.
It’s unlikely that many locals from Nizhny Novgorod made the 1,100 kilometre trip to St Petersburg and because Russia play their international matches in Moscow, the big football nights have always happened far away from here. Niznhy was one of Russia’s closed cities until 1989, locked off to all foreigners and known as Gorky in the Soviet decades. So it has never had a summer like this.
On Monday night, Bolshaya Pokrovskaya was teeming with victorious Swedes, loping down the paved boulevard in their vivid yellow and their happy, complacent Swedishness, pining for Zlatan and gagging for beer.
On Tuesday, it was the turn of the locals.
This isn’t Brazil, where football is a second language, nor Germany where hosting the World Cup felt like a natural full-circle moment for a football-mad country. In Nizhny, around tea-time, the locals began to paint their faces and draped the national flag on their shoulders as they made their way down to the fan zone, beside the city’s Kremlin, a vast red-brick citadel there since the Tsars ran the show. But you could tell that all of this was new and strange to them. In the communal garden of the apartments near Gorkoskaya station, friends began to gather with carry-outs and food.
A few soldiers, just off duty, hurried through the Metro to get home for the game. But there was no sense of the city coming to a standstill: this was not Russia’s 'a nation holds its breath’ moment.
“29/25” is one of Nizhny’s few football preserves: a corner bar on a residential street with photographs of the sepia days of Ewood Park and Old Trafford on its wall, a photograph of Bill Shankley and the Russian edition of Alex Ferguson’s biography.
At 7pm the place is quiet but a guy at the door explains that all its seats are reserved. It’s a thing the Russians have. You can’t just show up in a bar on a big night and expect to get in. Even football bars – and, during the World Cup, especially football bars – have this policy of booking ahead. There is no such thing as the Irish habit of standing five deep at the bar and going berserk because you can’t get served.
Through a strange back and forth featuring faltering English and non-existent Russian, the bouncer gradually grasps the fact no self-respecting Irish person could make a reservation just to sit in a bar: that it would bring perpetual bad luck and possibly break several laws, both international and local. He strokes his beard, pulls his peaked cap lower over his eyes, mutters something soulful and jerks a thumb over his shoulder: the international symbol for “get in te **** before I change me mind”.
Inside, everyone is worried about Mo Salah. “Very good! Very good!” says a bar man. “We need for him to . . .” and he does a grimace and a limp. “Then, maybe!” By nine, tables are full. But it’s a different scene – social rather than life-coming-to-a-standstill. Nobody listens to the pre-match stuff. Nobody pays much heed when the Russian anthem comes on. Nobody’s drinking vodka, either, it's just beer.
Still the mood is giddy after Ahmed Faithi’s own goal edges Russia into the lead after a cagey first half and by the time Artem Dzyuba makes it 3-0, everyone in the room is over the moon. The chants of Ru-si-ya are enough to cause other locals out strolling to peep their heads through the door through the night.
On Pokrovskaya, everything is happening at once: a half dozen Swedes, still emotional from the night before, are belting out some incomprehensible tune while 10 feet away three babushkas in floral dresses are standing in front of Nizhny’s state bank, a city landmark, for a photograph and a few metres beyond them, a teenager has set up an improvised deck on the street and is blasting out Lil Peep.
And everywhere now, Russians fans are growing louder and bolder in voice. Maybe it is like this on hockey nights in the Olympics but it seems unlikely: it feels as if this is a new moment of public exuberance in a city that feels far removed from Moscow, let alone the western world. Two wins; eight goals; it wasn’t even 11pm but it was clear that it was going to be a very different to the kind of Tuesday nights they passed when this place was Gorky.