Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of essays introducing all of the cities that will host World Cup matches this summer. Eliot Rothwell visited each venue to get an idea of the preparations and soak up the atmosphere.
MOSCOW – In the shadow of the imposing Stalinist tower of Moscow State University, chants of “Rossiya“dominated the evening. It was the fifth goal, Aleksandr Golovin’s free kick, that really did it. The 4-0 result exceeded the expectations of many Russian fans, but the 5-0 was historic. There was a sense of finality, pure . ” Triumph and domination. It was the kind of outcome found in films and books, stories where the protagonists shake off adversity to win through the most iconic scorelines.
The fans held up their five fingers and congratulated each other. There were chants everywhere. “”Ro-ssi-ya. Ro-ssi-ya. “
Before the game, the host fans were nervous. The South American contingent that made the trip – from Argentina, Colombia and Peru – brought color, noise and excitement. Russian fans were rather subdued. On the way to the fan zone along the observation deck in Sparrow Hills, many took their last sip of vodka before going through the security gates. On the left you could see the huge skyscrapers of Moscow City, the financial district, rising into the clouds. In front the Luzhniki, adorned with World Cup branding. In the distance the golden domes of the Church of Christ the Savior and the famous Stalinist towers.
Evgeniy, a 32-year-old from the Moscow suburbs, tossed his empty bottle in the trash can and said, “I’m sick. We’ve waited so long. Everyone is watching. I hope they won’t let us down.”
In the fan zone, in front of the big screens, hot dog carts and beer stalls, things got lively. The South Americans cheered. Russians appeared with their faces painted in the national colors. When the first goal came, a header from Yuri Gazinskiy, confidence returned. A cut away shot of President Vladimir Putin gesturing a kind of “oops” to the Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman caused a certain laugh in the crowd. Then came the second gate and the third … and the fourth and finally the fifth.
The way back to Leninsky Prospect was full of excited, beer-supported conversations, during which Russian fans stopped their foreign visitors for selfies. They learned each other’s names, patted each other on the back, and wished each other good luck. A Senegalese fan walked arm in arm with his new Russian friend. Conversations began everywhere in accented English. “Where are you from? How do you like Moscow?”
Ivan and Timur, two 19-year-old Muscovites, heard me speak English to another journalist. They both turned around with smiles. “English people!” They said. Ken, who is from Ireland, corrected them quickly. “Oh no,” they replied. “No world championship for you.”
I asked what you think of the game and Russia’s chances of a World Cup run. “It’s amazing,” said Ivan. “The game against Egypt is absolutely huge.”
Timur agreed. “”[Russia’s second game against] Egypt is very important, “he said.” But we will always remember that night. A 5-0 win will go down in Russian history. If something bad happens against Egypt, we can always say that we started our World Cup with five goals. All of Russia can celebrate tonight. “
On Wednesday, the night before the opening game of the World Cup, the party in the city was hosted by Moscow’s visitors. A carnival full of colors and songs broke out along Nikolskaya Ulitsa, the pedestrian street next to Red Square. Different road sections belonged to different nationalities. First the Iranians with their flags and banners dedicated to manager Carlos Queiroz. Then the Argentines, the most exuberant of them all. They hung up banners with the faces of Lionel Messi and Paulo Dybala and released their famous song to the tune of “Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Hundreds of people took part.
Further up, one of the real joys of the Moscow pre-tournament, the Peruvians did the same, followed by the Colombians and a small Saudi contingent.
This was a Moscow that the locals had never seen before. It was a city powered by the World Cup, and it waited eight years for a tournament to finally arrive. Muscovites were walking down a street they had seen hundreds or even thousands of times, but everything had changed. Where once there was clinical order, there was now joyous chaos. People took out their phones to take photos and videos and show them to friends and relatives. Some brought Russian flags or Russian soccer jerseys, jumped into the crowd or joined in the Argentine songs.
The World Cup promised a party, a football festival, and they delivered.
Grigoriy, a 43 year old local I met in the fan zone, was overjoyed. “This is a new city. It’s brilliant. I’ve lived in Moscow all my life and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
On Wednesday evening, the locals were amazed. They are used to seeing tourists, especially around Red Square and the Kremlin, but they have never seen such vibrancy and color or so much joy and happiness from visitors.
Muscovites know that tourists are often warned about what to expect in Russia. They know the kind of stories that are published about their country. Before the tournament, some feared their interactions with visitors would start with a little bit of hostility and misunderstanding. They expected to break the ice through conversation or a few drinks, but on Wednesday they discovered that there was no ice to break. They understood that people had arrived in Moscow hoping to have a good time. And they took part.
The visitors I spoke to were also surprised. In the week before the start of the tournament, when the first fans arrived, I spoke to two Peruvians, Jorge and Artur. They had never been to Russia and expected a very industrial, austere city. On their first night in Moscow, they came across Patriarch’s Ponds, one of the two ponds in central Moscow, and sat on the bank with fairy lights over their heads and groups of people sitting down for a few drinks. The next day they visited Kitai Gorod, a historic part of Moscow with small streets, Orthodox churches and colorful two-story buildings. They were expecting a city completely dominated by huge skyscrapers.
Jorge, the older of the two, was amazed. “This is completely different from what I imagined. I knew it would be a little different, every place usually. But wow. I don’t really know what to say. I think if people knew this place, there might be more here. “”
Artur, who could only speak a little English, nodded and said: “Moscow: very, very good. City very beautiful.”
People in Moscow and beyond will remember the events of the past few days for years. The awkwardness of Russian aviation, all of which ran through Moscow or St. Petersburg, created a special atmosphere. People who would otherwise have flown directly to Saransk, Volgograd or elsewhere decided to spend a few days in Moscow first to use the inconvenience as an opportunity to visit the Russian capital.
Over the next few days, when fans fly to the various host cities to see their nations compete against each other, the party is likely to move on and be broken. The rest of the tournament won’t be that centralized. Moscow had a fleeting moment and will remember it.