ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia: After nearly 20 days at the World Cup I’ve amassed my fair share of enduring images, but there’s just one that leaves an uncomfortably bad taste in the mouth. Outside Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, a crowd - mostly male - was cheering on an Asian fan in a Brazil jersey, who appeared to be coaxing a local woman into taking a, can I say, unconventional photo with him.
She looked uncertain, but agreed. He yanked her in by the waist, lifted one of her legs, hiked her skirt up her thigh, and shouted for someone to take the picture - and a split second before it was snapped, he buried his face in her bosom. Her face contorted in a mix of shock, confusion and horror.
Whether at the stadium venues or along activity hives like Nikolskaya Street in Russia’s capital, this was but one of countless instances where I witnessed visiting fans continually jostle and harry local - and sometimes foreign - women for a photo opportunity.
Some women have had it worse at this World Cup, from fans being serenaded with dirty songs and unwittingly taught obscene words to journalists getting groped and kissed while reporting live on TV.
The wire photo agency Getty did no one any favours by releasing - and later pulling - a gallery titled “World Cup 2018: The Sexiest Fans”. It’s not the only big name to slip up: Burger King Russia also posted on social media offering a lifetime Whopper supply plus cash, for local women to be impregnated by foreign footballers.
It started months before the tournament’s first kick-off with Argentina's Football Association issuing players handbooks with a section on how to flirt with Russian women.
FIFA’s official TV broadcasts, too, are guilty of persisting with the objectifying and frankly creepy tradition of the “babe cam”, where cameras fixate on women in the stadium who tick the same boxes of physical attributes.
Even away from the non-stop party in Moscow and here in the laidback southern host city of Rostov-on-Don, I’ve encountered visiting fans desperate to hook up with locals. There was the pair who hired sex workers in broad daylight, in front of me, and at least three groups on dates with young Rostov women surely not out of their teens.
The day after Iceland played Croatia, a father-son duo from one of these countries sat in front of me at a cafe, chatting up a local I presumed to be a World Cup volunteer off her shift. On a large TV near us, Mexico were playing Sweden, but the match held no interest for the son, who was regaling her with the most impressive fact that he was born near where Game of Thrones was filmed (now you know which country).
In the largely one-way conversation there was no flirtatious behaviour on her part and she seemed genuinely interested in only making friends. On the other hand when she went to the toilet, he betrayed his true intentions by entering a serious discussion with his father - yes - on whether she was “worth it”.
Cue key words like “nice face” and “okay body”. I wasn’t eavesdropping: Elsewhere in the cafe there were also fans from the “other” country who were shaking their heads at everything that loudmouth uttered.
To be clear, local women do willingly meet visitors. Last week, Russian service provider MTS said it recorded an over 1,000 per cent increase in Tinder use on World Cup match days, and local news articles continue to quote women and their interest in befriending the visiting hundreds of thousands.
The idea of Russian women mixing with anyone other than their own countrymen has rankled some conservative quarters, with a local broadsheet column describing them as “whores ready to open their legs as soon as they hear a foreign language”. Magazines, bloggers and netizens alike have come out to deride the piece while accusing Russia’s “slut-shaming men” of being green-eyed.
I obviously can’t speak for every man and his intentions, but I do hope there won’t be any case of fans taking advantage of the hospitality shown by volunteers and locals.
In my personal experience at least, every member of the largely female volunteer army - over 17,000 throughout Russia - has been unfailingly warm, welcoming, and terribly keen to extend assistance at all times. In Rostov, I saw a diminutive volunteer agree, of her own volition, to help a group of South Koreans with some placards they were lugging along on a 4km walk to the match against Mexico.
The local contacts I’ve met for my stories have also been hospitable to a fault, insisting on paying every meal and driving me everywhere, even over short distances. It did get a bit too much after a while, but one of them just sternly waved it off, saying: “No, no. This is the Russian way.”
Nishant, an Indian citizen living and working in Rostov for three years now, explained to me that it was about hosts doing everything in their power to make guests happy.
“Since I came here, everyone has been very friendly to me,” said the businessman, now dating a Rostov girl. “They make me feel like a local, like I’m Russian.”
Another day, another Russian cliche shot down - this time, xenophobia. If only the visiting fans could take a leaf out of that book and accord the same respect and equality to members of the opposite sex.