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Why Moscow Gave the FIFA World Cup Opener a Miss

But the big win by Russia in the opening match of the FIFA World Cup against Saudi Arabia seems to have lit a candle, which, over the weeks to come, would hopefully warm up the country to the football festival.
FIFA World Cup Moscow streets.

Walking around the centre of Moscow the night before the opening match of the FIFA World Cup, it was surprising to see how quiet it was, uncharacteristic for a city that was hosting the opening ceremony of a global sporting festival.

It was not hard to find empty streets in Moscow this past week. Perhaps, given the size of the city, this is always the case. However — walking around the centre of the city the night before the opening match of the FIFA World Cup — it was surprising just how quiet it could get. Even Red October island, a young part of town with dozens of bars, restaurants and clubs, was deserted. 

Alex, a young receptionist at Fabrika hostel, was in the middle of a 24-hour shift the night of June 13. “Most locals that are in Moscow right now are working people,” he said. “The rest of the city is either preparing for the opening day (by taking it easy the night before) or has already left town because they do not want to be here when the crowds descend.”

Over the past few days I have been travelling around Moscow a fair bit. The odometer in the car had crossed 700 km when I last checked. The only reason a lot of this was possible is because of a number of holidays (a long weekend culminating with Russia Day on June 12) and the fact that many Muscovites have decided to give the World Cup a miss. 

Call from the dacha

Part of this is a cultural thing. In a monetary sense, Russians may not be among the wealthiest in the world. But land is a resource they are not short on. Every day, particularly in the summer, millions of Russians living in cities head out to their family dacha. 

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The dacha is a second home of sorts that has been a part of city life in Russia since the 17th century. Studies indicate that between 25-35 percent of Russians who live in cities own a dacha. The values, or utility, of the summer house varies dramatically on a number of factors. Prime among them is the economic position of the family that owns the plot, but more has to do with the deeply ritualistic and philosophical way of life here. 

There is a profound sense of connection with soil that Russians, at least those born in the mid-1990s or earlier, hold very dear. Dacha plots are, since Soviet times, regulated in size. Therefore, they are not really meant for anything more than subsistence farming, gardening and other recreational uses. But meet any Russian man at his summer house and he will invariably show it off to you with great pride. 

Most are either built or designed, or both, by the families living in them. So, whether it is a makeshift two-room cottage with a small outhouse sauna, or the more well-appointed dwellings of the likes of Russian prime minister Dimitri Medvedev, the dacha is the place to be in the summer. The World Cup, particularly since the Russian team don’t really have a shot at winning, pales in comparison. 

Misinformation galore

The other part has to do with the active flow of misinformation in both directions. Football fans, particularly in the West, are being warned by their press about all sorts of things in Russia — from organised hooligan groups to potential attacks against LGBTQ individuals, or assertions of institutionalised and widespread racism. Therefore there might be a large number of travellers who would not hesitate to travel to, say, France, but may not make the trip to Russia. 

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A France fan I met on the train from Moscow to Kazan (where France played Australia on June 16) said he decided to come to Russia because he met a Russian woman in Paris a few months ago. Olivier (name changed) took his Russian partner up on her offer to host him in Moscow. 

“The main question in my mind was the language,” he said. “Because I will travel with my friend, though, it no longer matters. Of the football fans I know, a few decided not to apply for tickets because it is in Russia, and France are playing two of their group matches in smaller cities. But many still applied.” 

Olivier wanted his name changed because, in the interim, he has started seeing another lady back in Paris and, although I told him it was a long shot, he felt it best if the two women were to not find out about each other. 

Lee, an England fan travelling to Russia, wrote an emotional piece on the BBC website. “This summer I'm joining around 10,000 other England fans in Russia to cheer on the Three Lions,” his piece reads. “After clashes between England and Russia fans during Euro 2016, we're all going to have our wits about us. But, because I'm gay, I'm going to have to be extra careful. LGBTQ fans have been told they face extra risks in Russia because of the country's attitudes to homosexuality." 

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On the other side there are the likes of Anna Smirnov — a 42-year-old affluent Muscovite. 

“For me, Moscow was everything,” she says in fluent English sitting at her dining table drinking seemingly endless cups of tea. 

“But the city is already so crowded in the summer with tourists and there is so much traffic that it is impossible to be there,” she elaborates. “Successive mayors have done what they please with the city depending on whether their friends came from the infrastructure or real estate industries. In a city as big as Moscow, where almost everyone now has a car, this is a massive problem. 

“This year it’s the World Cup so football fans will the visiting in large numbers. Who wants to engage with hordes of drunken Englishmen?” she asks.  

On both sides the debates seem to be focused on fringe points of information. Not all Russians are racist or homophobic. Despite being a brown man travelling alone I have not encountered any hostility or aggression, nor have I felt unsafe. I have found Russians as friendly, welcoming and generous as any other people. Their hospitality, in fact, can more closely be compared to what you might see in the east than in the west.

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Similarly, not all football fans are drunken hooligans. Having been to several major football championships over the recent past I can say that the majority of tickets for these big events end up in the hands of middle-class people looking to combine the annual holiday and a major global sporting event. 

Less than 12 hours before the World Cup kicked off at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, there was very little buzz in the air about the month of football that lies ahead. Yet, over 78,000 turned up to watch Stanislav Cherchesov’s squad destroy a hapless Saudi Arabia. The roar that followed each of their five goals seemed load enough to make the rest of the country wake up and pay attention, if only in passing. 

It was important that Russia got the win on July 14 for that very reason. The candle of hope seems to have been lit. Hopefully, over the weeks to come, we will see its glow spread. 

Note: Where names are changed or quotes kept anonymous it is done at the request of the interviewee. 

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