World Cup fever grabs Russia as it prepares to open its arms
Doubts and concerns about the host nation are being consigned to the periphery
Argentina fans in high spirits outside the Kremlin in Moscow in advance of the start of the 2018 World Cup. Photograph: Vasil Maximov/AFP/Getty
Among the splendours on show in the corridors of the Ploshchad Revolyutsii metro station is a series of life-size bronze sculptures, including a lovable military dog, ears cocked for danger, sitting loyally beside his master, a crouching soldier.
It has become a tradition for passing commuters to rub the dog’s nose as they hurry past. Students began the practice when the station opened in 1938 hoping that it would bring them luck in exams – and not realising they would have more pressing concerns just a year later.
The tip of the dog’s nose is bright gold from decades of affectionate petting from Muscovites who lived under Stalin, through the horrors of the second World War, the Cold War, through perestroika and the insane fabulous rise of Russia’s oligarch princes.
Through all of that, this affectionate tradition has survived. Moscow has a long association with ‘metro dogs’ and in ordinary seasons, packs of strays roam the corridors, where they sleep and beg and are so at home that they know how to ride the trains from station to station as well as any Muscovite.
But this is no ordinary summer and reports that some of the two million stray dogs in Russia’s 12 host cities are being exterminated have been the source of local protests and condemnatory international reports, cited as just another example of everything that is wrong with Vladimir Putin’s World Cup.
As the spotlight intensified on sport’s mega-event, the inevitable hand-wringing and agonising over the local and international belligerence of the Russian state has provided the background chorus.
But the football teams have arrived anyway, suited and booted and touching down by private jet. The fans and media have come here anyway. The world will abandon Facebook and Youtube to watch Messi and Ronaldo and Salah anyway. This afternoon, Putin will take his place among the local fans in the Luzhniki Stadium to witness the opening act of Russia’s football sundance in front of the world.
Russia’s football team is as wholeheartedly ordinary as the actual state is flabbergastingly extraordinary and unpredictable. Almost a decade after Russia almost contemptuously outsmarted, out-moneyed and out-politicked England’s fancied bid host this World Cup, there remains some mystery of what Putin wants from the tournament. Certainly not to see a Russian lift the trophy: the hosts are among the also-rans.
The cliché that he wants the use the tournament to properly showcase the country contradicts a crude indifference to international opinion. If anything, the 683 billion rubles spent on preparing for this tournament have been a convenient way to regenerate a handful of cities to his pleasing and to bring the planet’s most glittering football names to the citizens of the interior – to Samara, Saransk, to Rostov: the Russia the world never sees or thinks about.
For decades, the Westernised concept of Russia has been distilled to Moscow, heartbeat city of the shadowy East, home of the Kremlin, resting place of Lenin and the imperious stage for all the power shows of the communist era.
Over the past few days, media and visiting fans alike made like bees for Red Square to see, with their own eyes, the sights made familiar from movies and news reports.
Tuesday was Russia Day, the country’s national day since 1992 – “an excuse for a day off work” – smiled one Fifa volunteer from the city, so Red Square was closed off.
The arriving fans, decked out in their kits, posed by the State History Museum and stopped in front of the Kremlin to see the changing of the guard and walked through Alexandrovsky Gardens, a feature in the city since the early 1800s.
And like Trafalgar or the Louvre Palace, the effect of the scale and the magnificence is to overwhelm; to say to visitors: all of this has been here before you and will remain after you have gone so Instagram-to-your-heart’s-content and trot along. But in Russian, of course.
In one way or another, fans from around the world will in turn find themselves bewildered, delighted, impressed and probably ripped off during their adventures. They will be overawed by the scale of the cities and the unfathomable expanse of the country. Some of the old stereotypes – the Russians don’t smile! – will begin to seem foolish. No matter where it travels, the World Cup is the same thing: a monstrously expensive fantasy in which everyone colludes for a month. (And then the Germans win).
Near Arbat street on Wednesday, a lone busker on viola played a piece recognisable to ears of all nationalities: the theme tune for Game of Thrones. Two girls mock ballet danced while a guy in an Iran jersey stood grinning dopily and just feet away, a group wearing Saudi flags were poring over a metro map with two armed soldiers.
A short time later, an elderly Muscovite approached a group of Peruvian fans, produced a phone from his pocket, got himself a photograph that would have been unimaginable in this city when he was a younger man and headed off into the morning.
Beyond the matches, the World Cup consists of millions of interactions like these; ordinary strangers from around the world willing to believe they are participating in something special; that they are having the time of their lives.
On Wednesday morning, the announcement that the North American bid, fronted by the United States, had been chosen over Morocco to host the 2026 World Cup coincided with the emerging reports from Sochi that Spain had sacked their coach, Julen Lopetegui, just 48 hours ahead of their first game.
Disbelief was general. Social media was ablaze. All the doubts and concerns about Russia as host moved to the periphery. Anticipation for the tournament – for the non-stop theatrics and dramatics of the weeks ahead – had reached molten.
“I collect emotions,” Putin famously declared in one of his more Bond-villain moments of self-reflection. What better way, though, to do that than sit back and watch the outside world – the West – happily lose the run of itself, chasing a football across the Motherland.