MOSCOW: It could not have gone better for Russia.
If this year’s World Cup is, as they say, a chance to change long-held opinions and make an impression, then I think the hosts knocked it out of the park - at least for the very first day of the tournament.
For a long time Muscovites will remember how on Jun 14 they awoke to perfectly clear and cool conditions, then went to bed having witnessed their team’s perfect start to the tournament in a thumping 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia.
The week actually started off slow but by Wednesday night (Jun 13) droves of football fans from all 32 participating teams - and even others like Italy and China - were filling up the pebbled streets around the city’s storied Red Square.
Good vibes were in abundance with wefies, high-fives, hugs and kisses freely exchanged between rival camps; and come matchday the light, spirited mood was carried over by seas of supporters on the metro and at the Luzhniki Stadium venue.
Despite the throngs there was no chaos or disorder as smiling, effervescent volunteers guided spectators into queues. Inside, the party atmosphere was replete with singalongs to the pop star Robbie Williams’ greatest hits, though the Russians did wear slightly nervous looks about how their team would perform.
Then 12 minutes from the starting whistle, midfielder Yuri Gazinsky leapt high to head home the first goal of the 2018 World Cup, and the Russians smiled.
TOUTS, SCAMMERS AND BEER, NOT VODKA
If I really had to find fault with Russia’s overall smooth organisation thus far of a huge, logistically-challenging event, it would be with the confusing directions and incomplete addresses provided to journalists on the ground here. It made finding the stadiums, FIFA Fan Fest and team training venues difficult at the beginning.
On a security note, the age-old issue of touts remains, with multiple sellers approaching me at the entrance to Luzhniki but quickly moving off upon spying my media accreditation. A friend, however, said he was quoted US$1,600 for three tickets to the opener.
This despite Russia's warning of fines for sellers of up to 25 times each ticket’s value.
On Wednesday, I was also approached by a scammer at a local eatery, who said he was a Colombian student and asked if I could pay for a meal for his “daughter”. Except her fake orange tan, skimpy dress sense and body language around her “father” was a little too suspicious for my liking - so off they went to badger others instead.
Otherwise, on every other count, Russia appears to be on a hot streak proving perceptions and stereotypes wrong.
Non-Caucasian individuals I encountered on the streets said they had never experienced racism in years of living in Moscow. At the opening match a rainbow flag was unfurled in support of LGBTs - and nothing untoward happened.
I also haven’t seen anyone drinking vodka after visiting multiple bars. Instead it’s been pints and pints of beer in the hands of locals and foreigners alike. I mean, KFC here sells the golden ale for around S$2 a cup.
Catch all 64 World Cup matches via Toggle’s 2018 Fifa World Cup Russia Pass at a one-time price of S$112.35. The prices are inclusive of GST and includes either a free six-month Toggle Prime plan, or a 12-month MUTV and Chelsea TV plan.