Thursday 19 July 2018

Russia's cup of joy a pleasant surprise

Many attendees will become willing propagandists for Putin's project, but we should remain wary

Nigeria’s fans celebrate their victory over Iceland. Photo: Getty Images
Nigeria’s fans celebrate their victory over Iceland. Photo: Getty Images

Oliver Brown

Until this World Cup began, Nikolskaya Street was seldom in the top rank of attractions that Muscovites would use to advertise their metropolis. Bounded by Red Square to the south and Lubyanka to the north, it was scarcely more than a forgotten sidetrack of soulless luxury shops.

And yet, over 10 exhilarating days, it has transformed its billing into the 'Street of Lights', a place where the full kaleidoscope of tournament madness finds expression in Mexican conga lines, Argentinian gaucho dances, and the sight of tireless Peruvians unfurling a giant team shirt on which fans can scribble their tributes.

Peru's exit was confirmed after just two matches, without so much as a goal to cheer, but it has put not a dent in the riotous off-field carnival. A country that declared a public holiday after qualifying for their first World Cup since 1982, and some of whose supporters quit jobs to savour a month-long trek across Russia, was not about to call last orders on the party just yet. Nor, come to that, were the Moroccans, who reacted to their own premature exit by staging mass singalongs on the floors of Moscow department stores.

Most striking of all, perhaps, has been the response of local police, simply watching on with wry amusement. The revelries have had an edge at times - at one stage outside Luzhniki Stadium, a few aggrieved Morocco fans scuffled with a group holding Israeli flags - but there were no baton-charges, no water cannons, no gratuitous shows of strength.

While the security forces are ever-present, hovering en masse at every checkpoint and creating half-mile cordons around every ground, they are wary of any excesses that might trigger an international incident.

Once, it was feared that this would be a hostile, disquieting World Cup, full of intrusive officialdom and scenes of England fans being hunted down by Russian ultras in balaclavas. Thus far, quite the opposite has transpired, with Russia, courtesy of its psychedelically-dressed tourists and its relaxation of its usual strict edicts, manufacturing an answer to the spirit of Woodstock.

Who honestly thought, for example, that this would be an event where a Russian MP, Mikhail Degtyaryov, would suggest that his people should welcome their football guests by "making babies" with them? "Many years from now," he crowed, "these children will remember that their parents' love story started during the World Cup in 2018."

The potential for gleeful, drunken abandon is not difficult to see, given that some of the craft beers on offer in Moscow have the potency of diesel oil. But while Mr Degtyaryov is a touch ambitious in his depiction of a free-love World Cup, he can be assured that it is already one of spontaneous friendships.

The domestic departures hall at Sheremetyevo airport is the perfect place to study that effect in action. At the gate for Aeroflot flight 1758 to Volgograd, Iceland fans in Viking costumes, handling their prodigious breakfast thirst with aplomb, could hardly wait to pose for selfies with Nigerian rivals in traditional Yoruba hats. As a demonstration of the World Cup's power to forge a common bond between two diametrically opposed cultures, it was stirring.

In mid-summer, the light in most northerly latitudes of Russia is almost constant. Not even thick hotel curtains can screen out the first dazzling blaze of dawn before 4.0am. It seems fitting, then, for these five weeks, that the parties should last all night.

My dinner companion late one evening was Dmitri Beliakov, a decorated photographer who has seen Russia in many of its darkest guises, from the siege of Beslan to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and I was struck by his surprise at quite how thrillingly alive Moscow felt. On the street outside, where the cavorting Latin Americans had just run headlong into a rap festival, the noise was enough to shake the restaurant windows. "It's not normally like this," he smiled. "Especially on a Wednesday."

Ultimately, even an occasion of the World Cup's extravagant sweep cannot do a nation of Russia's vastness justice. While the choice of venues has produced some stark aesthetic contrasts, from the old Prussian charms of Kaliningrad, formerly Konigsberg, to the Black Sea promenades in Sochi, they still span barely a quarter of the land mass.

Ekaterinburg, the eastern-most city selected, could seem like the edge of the universe, almost a 30-hour journey on the Trans-Siberian from Moscow, but it is easily reachable by Russian standards. Beyond it is where the true wilderness, the endless taiga through which train passengers can pass for days without glimpsing a single dwelling, is found. One can fly eight hours and still not reach Magadan, accessible by land only via the 'Road of Bones', or Anadyr, capital of the Chukotka region where Roman Abramovich once ruled.

At least this World Cup has afforded some priceless windows, though, into the suffering and sacrifice woven into Russian history. Gareth Southgate suggested as much when he led England to Volgograd, acknowledging that the visit proved that "some things are bigger than football - and that's good for us all". Ahead of Nigeria's match with Iceland there, I spent a couple of hours exploring Mamayev Kurgan, the city's haunting memorial to its countless dead in the Battle of Stalingrad.

Nothing quite steels you for the scale of The Motherland Calls, the colossal central statue of a woman raising her sword in defiance of the enemy, or of what it signifies. The juxtaposition with the modern is powerful, too. While soldiers patrol the grounds scrupulously to punish any perceived sign of disrespect, and while fans in full kit lay roses beside the eternal flame, the glittering Volgograd Arena - with its semi-transparent facade lit up in criss-crossing patterns - lies resplendent in the shadow of the hill. Somehow, the scene captures both Russia's reverence for the past and its restless urge to turn the page.

Will this unprecedented global showcase furnish Vladimir Putin with the soft power he craves? That is clearly his calculation, in light of his prominent networking session at Luzhniki with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, but it might be over-optimistic.

The bubble of these sporting mega-events is such that many attendees become willing propagandists, only too happy to declare that they have been disabused of their preconceptions and that Russia truly is the land of milk and honey after all. We should know by now not to be swayed so easily.

For all the refreshing openness of this World Cup, and the intoxicating sensation of a night-time walk down Nikolskaya Street, there is good reason to remain wary of what comes next. Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk

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