Monday 24 September 2018

Russian reality ticks all the boxes

World Cup Postcard

Sunset over the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium. Photo: PA
Sunset over the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium. Photo: PA
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

There are times when a first trip in a taxi offers a window into a country. Especially when the build-up to a World Cup in that destination has been filled with warnings about all that can and will go wrong.

Before South Africa, a tale doing the rounds was that cabs wouldn't even stop at traffic lights for fear of robbery and gun attacks.

A series of nervous and incident-free waits at red lights on the first trip into Johannesburg in 2010 proved reassuring in its own way.

In Brazil, a place which has its own issues with crime, the main danger was distracted drivers watching the games live on their dashboard.

A daring overtaking manoeuvre while trying to catch a glimpse of a Robin van Persie strike against Spain lives in the memory, because the thought did cross the mind that this would be the last goal any of us in the taxi would ever see. Still, it confirmed the image of a football-mad nation.

And so to Russia, and the drive from Vnukovo Airport into Moscow in the early hours of last Saturday morning in the company of a chatty driver who grew up in Tajikistan while considering himself a Uzbekistan national.

He is learning English through an online course run by Aberdeen University and is slowly getting there.

After a circuitous discussion that returned to that old chestnut of trying to explain that Ireland and England were different places, a breakthrough was eventually reached. "Conor McGregor!" he announced, his eyes lighting up.

In spite of that, he was a peaceful soul. Local drivers do like to take some liberties, but the only frantic jamming of the brakes occurred on the final leg of the journey.

The reason was a sad-looking bird that had parked itself in the middle of the road. A beep of the horn had no impact. Clearly, the little white wings had malfunctioned.

The driver waited a little before putting on his indicator and gently swerving to the side.

That said, the halo dimmed slightly when he insisted on carrying the bags to the doors of the hotel, where he was berated by the gruff but friendly receptionist for overcharging when she heard the agreed price.

First appearances can be deceptive here. Gruff but friendly could function as a three-word tag-line for Russian hospitality. Maybe it has been cranked up a notch because it's good for business.

That's the World Cup way. There will always be a sanitised version of the reality; Russia have cleaned wild dogs off the streets, clamped down on hooligans, and encouraged locals to smile and speak a bit more English.

Signs have been altered to add English words and directions where there was none before. Travelling fans and media have ID cards which allow free travel on trains between venues and on public transport within host cities. Indeed, there are staff at each station who are at pains to ensure that no visitor pays in error.

However, one would have to be cursed with a terminal dose of cynicism to conclude that all generosity is a part of a charade.

It's apparent that the novelty has been embraced, and the locals want people to appreciate and enjoy their country. Muscovites are a bit more used to guests of all shapes and sizes gravitating in their direction, although it tends to be from East rather than West.

But it's a slightly different story in Nizhny Novgorod, the stage for the meeting of England and Panama, which was a closed city - foreigners were not allowed to visit - from 1959 until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Gorky, as it was then known, was a hub for the production of materials for the military. Secrecy hung over the exact nature of people's work.

Less than three decades later, residents old enough to remember that time have been dealing with the sight of fans from Sweden and South Korea, Argentina and Croatia, and then England and Panama, walking their streets.

The English, who have undoubtedly taken some of the scare stories far too seriously, are down in volume in every sense of the word.

There was nothing intimidating about Nizhny. The old town stretches down from a monument to Maxim Gorky, a Soviet writer and Nobel Prize for literature nominee.

At 8.0am last Sunday, the only noise of any kind came from a local reveller who appeared to be making his way home from the night before.

Later that evening at the train station, a porter in a hi-vis jacket sat with a group of Panama fans who were enjoying Colombia's destruction of Poland.

The middle-aged native wasn't able to converse but, as they packed up and prepared to leave, he beckoned towards a Panamanian to ask if he could try on one of their famous hats. They ended up leaving it with him as a parting gift.

These are the brief, trivial interactions that matter when it comes to breaking a perception.

Modern Russia has a population of 144 million, and yet there's a shady generalising stereotype that has lingered which is about as nuanced as that Ivan Drago character in the Rocky movies.

Of course, it helps that the locals are taking pride in their own team's performance, even if Uruguay succeeded in bursting the bubble a bit yesterday.

Moscow didn't come to a standstill like Rio did during Brazil games, even though pubs and fanzones were busy.

In the area around Belorussky Station, one of the Russian capital's main rail terminals, there were scores of people going about their normal business during the rush-hour match.

But even the non-football fans appear to recognise what hosting means. And there's no reason to believe that the atmosphere would be any different if the home side had gone out early.

The essence of a proper World Cup is fans from all around the world coming together safely in one place to enjoy a passion they share in common. Russia is delivering that, while putting its own twist on it.

Food and drink is cheap. Internal travel is quirky and the range of options offsets a few of the accommodation issues in the smaller cities. The mishmash of nationalities embarking on long-haul trips together is a part of the authentic major tournament experience.

When Ireland fell miserably short against Denmark last November, some fans loudly took consolation from the fact it spared them a trip into the unknown, to a country that is characterised as a mysterious and dangerous place that is unsafe for outsiders.

Bad news lads. You would have loved it.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport