A World Cup trip to Russia has found a country with people ready to welcome visitors and sleepless nights where the sun never sets
Kashinath Bhattacharjee, Saint Petersburg
My first visit to Moscow was in 2008 when Manchester United and Chelsea met in the Champions League final at the Luzhniki stadium. The official confirmation for accreditation came from UEFA just ten days before the match. There was little time to prepare for the trip to the fatherland of Communism.
And on arriving, five days were not enough to roam around the city since football was at the top of the priority list. I only managed to visit Red Square where UEFA was organising a football fair. The city looked beautiful, and the people disciplined. Especially, when you are coming from India.
The language barrier is the first thing you come across while covering international football. Back then in India, most of us were unaware that Europe had shifted from three-pins to two-pins in terms of laptop chargers or adaptors. I came with a three-pin and was surprised to find that my laptop only had two hours of life.
I had to find a solution. Max, my Russian friend at the reception helped me with his chargers, but could not tell me where to find those universal adaptors that could bail me out. I knew nothing about the Russian language. Google Translate wasn’t available back then. It took me three days to make the shop owners understand what I was actually looking for.
The same happened when I visited the Dynamo Moscow club, when trying to find the address of the late Lev Yashin’s home. It was a miserable failure. I was taken to the legendary goalkeeper’s Bronze statue inside the club premises – a good story, definitely for me – but despite trying everything possible, I could not find the address of Yashin’s house.
Ten years on, Moscow is not much changed but the invention of Android has made life far easier. Not only that, on the road there are a lot of English-speakers ready to help out everywhere. Whether in the mobile shop, the road or in a shopping mall, spontaneously they are coming to help you. My habit of losing the way home to where I am staying is being taken of by Russians on the road, every time. This is their World Cup and they are keen to show the world how cordial they are.
Following Russia’s second win in the group stage, Red Square erupted with joy. Before that, even the five-star victory against Saudi Arabia could not inspire the Russians to celebrate. No doubt, the fact that the team that had gone seven without a win before the World Cup did not give them the confidence to go gaga over the best victory in the opening match of the World Cup since 1938. The second win and qualification had the desired effect normally football has on the fans of winning teams.
A train journey from Moscow to Saint Petersburg was thrilling since there were quite a few Brazilian supporters in the train. They know how to celebrate. Even a draw in their first match against Switzerland could not dampen their spirits. They took over the restaurant on the train, drank beer, ate food and sang with an open heart for close to three hours before sleeping.
Saint Petersburg is said to be the Venice of north. The stadium, surrounded by the Baltic sea on three sides, is simply awesome. There was a metro station nearby, and there were more Brazilians than locals for the country’s second match. The city’s main attraction centres are around five to seven kilometres away. Unlike Moscow, the football fans did not take over the city. Saint Petersburg is rich in tradition and tourists from all over the world regularly visit the city for its historical importance.
The most interesting thing is that daylight remains even at night. At two in the morning you might feel its already seven. At 8:30 in the evening, suddenly the sun comes out from nowhere after a rainy day and you feel like going out straightaway after spending the whole day inside because of the cold and rain.
Moscow had given me, a Bengali forever, the chance to be at the feet of the statue of our beloved Rabindranath Tagore at the Leningradsky Highway; Saint Petersburg has welcomed me with the breeze from the Baltic Sea. Just for allowing me to roam round Russia this way over the last twelve days and another 23 days in future, I shall remain indebted to football forever.