First off – a confession: I’m not much of a football fan. I’ll watch the odd England game (and they are often odd), and I do follow – with morbid fascination and a sense of impending dread – the fortunes of West Ham, a team I only support in solidarity with my elder brother, who first became aware of football in ’66, when three of England’s victorious players, including captain Bobby Moore and hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst, were Hammers. But I can equally go several years without actively watching football, so I viewed the upcoming 2018 mundial with a typically British combination of indifference and a suspicion that it would somehow disrupt any other plans I might have.
So by the time June 14th and the first match of the tournament rolled around, the initial excitement of 2010 when Russia was announced as host nation – and who can forget all those conversations with Russian friends about where the hell Saransk is – had worn off somewhat in the intervening years, and then…
And then I emerged from the metro onto Nevsky Prospekt on a sunny Thursday afternoon, and walked straight into a carnival – Russia-Saudi Arabia was in full swing, and the whole area around Kazan’ cathedral was absolutely heaving with Russian, Saudi, Iranian, Mexican, Brazilian, and pretty much every other flag you can think of (no Italian or Dutch flags for some reason…). Regular visitors to St Pete know that Nevsky is generally a lively place in the summer, but this was simply on another level. God knows what the actual fan-zone must have been like, but what was more surprising, particularly to a Brit of my generation, was the total absence of what I would call “agro”.
I can’t speak for the other host-cities, and I’m sure there was some beer-fueled friction at some point, somewhere, but my experience for the ensuing month was of the whole tournament taking place in an atmosphere of conviviality and good humour. I know that we long-term expats tend to look at our adopted home through rose-tinted spectacles – generally in a vain effort to counterbalance the negative coverage in the wider, less-informed media – but while the quality of the matches themselves is generally beyond the control of the host nation, for the rest of the tournament the buck stops very much with the organisers, and in this, you have to say, Russia played an absolute blinder.
And I don’t mean an absolute blinder in the more common “nothing went badly wrong” sense, but in the sense that I suspect pretty much everyone who visited this country over the last month or so left with a more positive impression than when they came, same as happened to me when I first visited nearly 30 years ago. And if that becomes a lasting legacy of the tournament, then that can only be a good thing, and not just for Russia – maybe there is a good side to all that negative coverage after all.