AN INTERCITY JOURNEY
17
Some dreamed of coming to Moscow to visit Nikolskaya Street, others to take
in St Petersburg. As for me, I spent over 20 days travelling around various
Russian cities that were selected to host World Cup fixtures.
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by Yury Golyshak
Some dreamed of coming to Moscow to visit Nikolskaya Street, others to take in St Petersburg. As for me, I spent over 20 days travelling around various Russian cities that were selected to host World Cup fixtures.
that van, helping replenish plates and glasses and inspecting all the stickers on the vehicle. Who knew if we would ever meet again! But we did, in Sochi, a couple of days later. Those hardy Portuguese supporters covered huge distances and managed to conquer the Sochi serpentine road. Cue another feast. This time I was given some kind of shellfish. Their hand gestures made it clear that I should pick them open and enjoy the taste. I couldn't bring myself to refuse in case they felt offended.
On the eve of the Iran-Portugal match, a group of Portuguese fans, who had driven across Europe in their retro camper van, were handing out food on trays in Saransk. The dish contained some kind of fish and vegetables, accompanied by white wine, music and dancing. I spent a long time near that van, helping replenish plates and glasses and inspecting all the stickers on the vehicle. Who knew if we would ever meet again! But we did, in Sochi, a couple of days later. Those hardy Portuguese supporters covered huge distances and managed to conquer the Sochi serpentine road. Cue another feast. This time I was given some kind of shellfish. Their hand gestures made it clear that I should pick them open and enjoy the taste. I couldn't bring myself to refuse in case they felt offended.
"Do you happen to have a T-shirt like that?" I pointed at one of the hosts with my plastic fork.

"A T-shirt? Sure. And a flag, and a scarf, too. Anything at all, in fact! A T-shirt will cost you 1,000 roubles," he answered.

"All right, 1,000 is okay."

Somebody else heard the conversation and bought one too. Then others followed. More and more. It was like hitting the jackpot!

By night time, half the population of Sochi seemed to be wearing these T-shirts. Some of them were out-and-out Portuguese fans. Others were like myself.

My hosts refused to take any money for the food, which the van seemed to have an endless supply of!

I fell in love with Sochi during the 2014 Olympics, so I went there again and stayed in the same hotel, the Ekaterininsky Kvartal, as last time. All the memories came flooding back. How good it was then when I was four years younger!

It was hard to focus on supporting the teams that played in Sochi. And it was equally hard to feel nervous. The warm breezes off the sea made one feel dizzy. People melt in this city like wax. Even former German international Kevin Kurányi, who played part of his club career in Moscow and who I happened to bump into, is yawning because of the heat, smiling with his eyes only.

My dream is that Sochi will one day have a great football team. Then I would be able to come here on work trips and yawn just like Kevin Kurányi!

Oh, Sochi, Sochi, I love you so much. I wish my whole life was like this night, with everything shimmering and glistening.
I saw all kinds of vehicles during this World Cup. The aforementioned Portuguese fans apparently travelled all over the world in their van, even to places like Azerbaijan, judging by those stickers.

A similar van, but 40 years older still, was parked on the outskirts of Saransk - a post-war Mercedes with Czech plates. The occupants, however, were Swiss. They overtook me on my way to Kazan three times, and three times I returned the compliment.

I was walking around Kazan the morning after Germany's elimination, when I suddenly noticed a van with, would you believe, Chinese plates! Wow, that must have taken courage.

Later that day, on my way to Nizhny Novgorod, I overtook it and stretched out my hand to encourage them.

Oh, and how could I forget that old Argentinian banger in Kazan. They probably paid more to have it shipped to Russia than the vehicle originally cost!
We had reached Kazan just in time for that mouth-watering spectacle in which Kylian Mbappé outplayed Lionel Messi and his team. Maybe the Argentinians in that old car were travelling home in shock the same evening. Maybe they were travelling on around Russia, perhaps now following France and wiping away their tears.

What other strange vehicles did I come across? There were two old Volgas with deer emblems parked on Bolshaya Pokrovskaya Street in Nizhny Novgorod. One black, the other white. The foreign fans did not pay much attention, perhaps because there were so many girls around! Only Russians took pictures of the cars. A bit further away, a boy wearing a Messi T-shirt was playing with a ball, endangering the windows of a police truck. The policemen stood aside, appearing not to mind. Maybe they were waiting to see if the boy hit their windows or not.
The Iranians were the most excitable fans at the World Cup in my experience. Certainly the loudest and the most cheerful. If you got among them, they could drive you crazy, leaving you with no choice but to copy them dancing and shouting, "Iran, Iran!"

They changed their look as the match against Portugal drew closer, putting what looked like weird frames around their heads and walking around Saransk scaring the elderly Mordovian ladies, who had never seen anything like it. I decided to take a close look and realised that what they had on their heads were actually footballer collection cards! Didn't all of us in our 40s start collecting such cards before the 1990 World Cup? Didn't we tremble as we tore into our packs to see if there was a rare or coveted player inside?

«ut these cards were massive, bigger than the wearer's head, in fact, showing a smiling fan's face despite the inscription saying Sardar Azmoun, Iran's much-loved striker ...

The Iranians were cunning - and also nimble. You should have seen them adroitly climb the Cathedral of St Theodore Ushakov and wave their flag from underneath the dome. Saransk did not seem to mind, the city folk just chuckled amiably. If this was how they wanted to behave, fine. They will remember these moments for the rest of their lives.
Saransk was my personal favourite World Cup host city. It felt as though the city had been demolished and then rebuilt. The American way. It was not Saransk any more, it was Las Vegas.

To me the stadiums looked like giant spaceships. Here is Nizhny Novgorod, my beloved city. It's a great pleasure to visit it even without a trip to the stadium. And I was astonished when I saw this miracle. How on earth did they manage to find such a spot in the very heart of the city? It is not just the city centre, it's better than that.

Here is the small Volga riverbank, here is the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (one of the tallest in Russia), and there is the Kremlin somewhere above. And, finally, here is the stadium with 88 supporting columns. And 44 more on the inside. There's a feeling that the roof of the arena is floating in mid-air.
Who played here? We should meet them … meaning the Uruguayans. They've been known in these parts for many years. I found a photograph in the archives: in 1928, Nizhny Novgorod hosted a match between the visiting Uruguayan worker sports community and the local railwaymen's club Spartak. Exactly 90 years ago! The visitors won 2-1.

For the World Cup, visitors enjoyed wonderful facilities in Bor, located on the left bank of the Volga River, across from Nizhny Novgorod. The fan zone there had two large screens, enough for 17,000 spectators. I wondered what used to be here in the past, as I considered it best location in the city. The answer is that it was some kind of industrial port area dating back to the All-Russian trade and industrial exhibition of 1896.
Space was also found in Volgograd to build a large stadium in the city centre, though it was easier in this case. They demolished the old stadium right on the riverbank and built a sumptuous new one in the same place. You go down from the Mamayev Kurgan, cross the street and there you are, looking at this thing of beauty. Of all the World Cup stadiums, it looked the most compact. And the grass was unique, Sergei Pavlov, who was coach of FC Rotor Volgograd, told me. The centre of Volgograd looked so wonderful and The Motherland Calls, the city's incredible giant sculpture, so impressive that I was lost for words. You simply need to see it with your own eyes. The Volga River, the barges, the sunshine, the stadium that looks like a spaceship... wow!

In a sense, the city responded by becoming more beautiful to match the grandeur of the event... even with the rain falling upon the stadium embankment.

However many years pass, I shall always remember the orange elephant as big as a house standing near the Kazan Kremlin. Nor shall I forget Korea Republic's victory over Germany and the sad face of their goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, whose size astonished me. People say Belgium's Romelu Lukaku is as big as a wardrobe. Take a look at Neuer! When the three Korean goalkeepers embraced each other, the German looked bigger than all of them put together.

So many big names were eliminated from the World Cup in Kazan: Germany, Argentina, Brazil, but everybody fell in love with this city. Joachim Löw was right when he said how there was so much beauty around but that they didn't have a chance to see all of it. You can walk around Kazan for 48 hours without following the same route twice, discovering new places every time. This place looks like a toy city from a distance. It's surely impossible to actually build something that beautiful.

What a pity that Löw and his team didn't manage to visit the fortified island of Sviyazhsk, or the ancient city of Bolghar. These picturesque places would have refreshed their spirits and helped them to play better. I am sure of it.

I remember the time I suffered intensely when Kazan rebuilt for the millennium. Almost all the wooden structures in the city centre made were demolished, and it almost made me cry. But the new construction has proved so tasteful that I needn't have felt so bad. The World Cup helped all the host cities become more beautiful, but with Kazan it was the other way around: the city helped the World Cup become even more wonderful. No improvement was needed.
n the eve of the Iran-Portugal match, a group of Portuguese fans, who had driven across Europe in their retro camper van, were handing out food on trays in Saransk. The dish contained some kind of fish and vegetables, accompanied by white wine, music and dancing. I spent a long time near
Approaching the stadium, you were met with a piece of graffiti as big as a house. Was it Ruslan Kambolov by any chance? Yeah, that's him, 10 metres tall! Can you imagine? The artists involved said it took them only one day to complete. Cristiano Ronaldo took four times as long. And the one of former Rubin Kazan coach Sergei Semak is painted right on the bus stop.

Everything is special in Kazan, even the stadium lighting. It resembles a sky full of stars and looks fantastic in the dark.

I remember seeing a black Mercedes quickly approach the last guard post near the Kazan stadium. It stopped near the metal detector reserved for the VIPs. I wondered how many guest-passes one had to have for that! A young man got out wearing a tie, and the Korean fans went mad. They rushed for autographs – on T-shirts, tickets, anything...

"Who is that?" I asked a fan.
He looked at me as if I was a crazy fool.
"Park Ji-sung!" he shouted in my face, "who used to play for Manchester United."
How could I fail to recognise him straight away?

Park was friendly and answered everybody's questions, including mine. He smiled and said something courteous about the Russian national team. On leaving, he bowed. I melted on seeing that. My friend Andrei Kanchelskis, as far as I remember, used to play for Manchester United too. But he never bowed to me. He did treat me to tea with milk though.
Mexican fans could be seen around every host city, regardless of where their own team was actually playing – or if it was still playing at all.

Argentinian fans were more or less the same. How could you ever forget their tears as big as fake diamonds, especially after they'd just lost to the French. At the Nizhny Novgorod fan fest, they were seated along the wall. One of them suddenly got up and staggered away.

"If you see an Argentinian fan nearby, give them a hug!" the public address system boomed out, drowning even the music being played. "And thank them for Messi..."
You'd have thought they'd forever be inconsolable, but they were fine by the next morning, competing with the Chinese to inspect the tanks in the Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin.

Rostov-on-Don was equally unforgettable. So comfortable and so spacious at the same time, with such a sense of freedom. "Do what you like" seemed to be the motto and the Brazilian and Swiss fans did exactly that. The Swiss supporters blew up an inflatable unicorn and raised it high in the sky before bidding it farewell altogether: "Ozzy, ozzy, ozzy…" If only I knew what that meant!
I'd never have thought that Switzerland would have such a close knit army of fans. They unfurled a flag as big as a square and carried it to the stadium singing songs and playing pipes. I managed to curl under it with my camera and no one minded. When I reached the bridge across the Don River, I almost got trapped inside it. And there was another concern. The Brazilian fans were blocking the way. Was there going to be fan warfare? There were fewer Brazilians, but they certainly looked more courageous. The eyes don't lie and those of the Brazilians were burning with determination.

The two sets of fans spent one or two minutes facing each other until then the reason for the blockade became obvious. Tired of listening to the Swiss songs, the Brazilians wanted the Swiss to listen to one of their own. It was all very amicable. They embraced and continued their journey together, under the huge Swiss flag and a great many smaller Brazilian ones. It was such a beautiful sight.
Rostov-on-Don normally becomes deathly quiet by three in the afternoon. You can wander, unhurried, along the empty streets, enjoying a city that knows how to enchant and bewitch better than any other. The wind was blowing in the sound of music from somewhere...

The stadium is so magnificent that FC Rostov head coach Valeri Karpin was looking around the press centre dumbfounded, even though it was not the first time he'd seen it. Was it really possible that his team would play there after the World Cup was over?

Rostov-on-Don absorbed the World Cup atmosphere probably more than any other city: even in the hotels on the outskirts, guests were given small gifts with the World Cup symbol: "Rostov-on-Don, World Cup host city." Little keepsakes to help them remember.

And so to Samara, where I had not been for several years. The wonderful wooden houses remained, and all the changes had been for the better. The embankment had always been fabulous and now it became so striking that one forgot all about football.

Samara is a city that is best enjoyed while walking at night. The new stadium is 15 kilometres away from the city centre, which is a bit far. But here's the thing. There were no traffic jams, even a couple of hours before the Australia–Denmark match. We got there in no time, managing to see the way street artists had painted the tower blocks in the city along the way. One of them featured Laurent Blanc kissing the bald head of Fabien Barthez, while another portrayed the legendary Lev Yashin...

And oh, the stadium. The kind of place that encourages good play. When the match is over, you just don't want to leave. Just like you don't want to leave this city that never sleeps.

I remember sharing a taxi with a couple of Australians in Samara. I asked them to sing on camera instead of paying their share. It turned out they were millionaires with thousands of Instagram followers. The guy was a banker and the lady a supermodel. They were watching the match from the most expensive part of the VIP area yet were still wearing inflatable kangaroos around their necks!

Though not the loudest, the Australian fans were probably the most colourful, with everybody wearing a different costume. Many were as handsome as their bearded team captain and penalty expert Mile Jedinak of Aston Villa. Listen to the sound of his last name and say it to yourself. It sounds like a lucky charm, doesn't it? One could easily start supporting Aston Villa solely because of this lumberjack-looking player.
A man with a strange flag on his back was wandering among the birch trees far away from the stadium in Kaliningrad. "Is that not the Algerian flag?" I asked myself, trying to remember my geography.

I checked it, and I was right. Indeed, it was Algeria. "Where have you come from, brother?" He smiled silently... If that was not surprising enough given that Algeria didn't qualify, I later met a Fijian in Volgograd. A Fijian, yes, you heard right.
I shall always remember Volgograd, where English fans could not get rid of the insects pestering them. I was taking a ride and saw about 20 midges on a lamp. Clearly, it wasn't going to be much fun for the fans. The grandeur of the Mamayev Kurgan memorial and the midges stupefied the English in equal measure. In the stadium, they sprayed themselves with insect repellent, but it didn't help.

While I was in the area, I almost became a Tunisian citizen in the nearby city of Volzhsky while dancing with a flag, surrounded by new friends. They had been misled by whoever had organised their trip because only one day's stay in a hotel had been paid for instead of two. But having nowhere to stay for 24 hours was all right with the Tunisians. They were hardy fellows indeed. After clearing all the liquor from the shelves of Volzhsky's stores, they just camped out on the steps of the very same hotel. They clearly found this far more interesting!

Volgograd had anticipated the arrival of the English fans with a mixture of awe and curiosity. The city had heard a lot about them!

At first, it seemed none of them were coming. One could see the odd stray English fan or two around the city but that was it. Occasionally, one would see a British T-shirt out in the suburbs, someone with grey hair and a calm attitude who looked nothing like a fan. I personally did all I could for England and its fans. I showed them the way across the street from the stadium to The Motherland Calls monument. I told them they would never see anything grander either in Volgograd or anywhere else. I went along, just in case. The English loved it and could hardly find the words, so amazed were they.
"Where is he now? Does he still coach? He is still young, no need to quit yet…"

"No, no, he's showing no signs of quitting. He's currently coaching a Dutch club.

His sports school is just a stone's throw away from here. Leonid also works as a TV commentator. The country loves him."

"Oh!" exclaimed the English fan. "I'd love to see his school…"

I showed him how to get there, but I wasn't going with him, having already seen it.

All these recollections, I remember vividly – and always will. Thank you, World Cup. I have never seen anything kinder and brighter in my life.