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