Russia: Not so much a bear, more of a pleasant surprise (Analysis)

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Moscow, July 16 (IANS) So the World Cup is over after just over a month of intense football, travelling, long nights and early mornings, flights and press-room coffee.

A total of 35 days in Russia gives you a lot to think about and a lot to remember, too much to express in 500 words, but some impressions from the World Cup should be written down for posterity, reports Xinhua news agency.

A lot of people, both fans and reporters, myself included, travelled to Russia with a few doubts; let’s be honest: publicity for Russia isn’t always great and as England coach Gareth Southgate commented on Saturday, political relations between Russia and the UK are not good, and we had all read stories of Russian mafia, hooligans… So what were the people like? Fantastic!

Everyone seemed to take the World Cup to their hearts and make an effort to make us feel welcome. A special mention to the volunteers, putting their English to good use and high-fiving everyone in sight.

It can’t have been easy in 36 degrees Celsius in Volgograd with the midges!

Language is an issue (especially if you don’t speak or read Russian and not many of us do, which can make navigation difficult), but several times I found myself sitting next to new friends, enjoying some excellent Russian beer, swapping selfies and discussing football and most of all feeling welcome.

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Transport was always going to be an issue in such a big country and it was a shame to see empty seats in the England v Sweden game in Samara simply because all of the flights from Moscow were full as were the trains.

Overall, however, I have a very positive feeling about my travels (and I really don’t like flying at all). All of my flights left and arrived on time, they were efficient, punctual and we got a free meal on the plane (Are you listening Easyjet, Ryanair and British Airways?).

I made all of my connections, even those with a swift turnaround, and my bags were on the same plane as I was. You can’t really ask for much more than that and during the early stages, especially, it was fun to see fans from all over the world catching their flights to all points in the various Moscow airports, which served as the World Cup transport hub.

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Some of the roads maybe could use some resurfacing, it has to be said, especially around the smaller venues and I have to say some taxi drivers were slightly ‘over enthusiastic’ in their driving.

I was told by one companion, how his taxi sped around a corner with the driver shouting “Schumacher!” while the reporter quailed in the back seat, while my own kidneys will need a while to recover after we were taken on a sightseeing trip to the shores of the Sea of Azov along ‘roads’ which left a bit to be desired.

Security never seemed to be an issue; there was a heavy police presence on the streets of Moscow, but it felt reassuring rather than intimidating and it did the job. Likewise the security around the stadiums was effective and reasonably unobtrusive, probably because everyone understood it was necessary, and it is nice to go into a ground knowing that all you need worry about it whether or not your team are going to win or lose.

Maybe it was the large numbers of Latin American fans (at least in the early stages), but it also seemed to be a joyous World Cup, with street parties and celebrations and excellent relations between supporters.

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I remember Iran fans getting excited in Moscow and chanting in the street and everyone wanting a photo…and Peruvians everywhere… I mean everywhere! Even where their side wasn’t playing. I only saw a couple of reports of minor disturbances (Argentine fans angry after losing 0-3 to Croatia), but thankfully there was nothing major, with good relations at the forefront.

And if that was the case, it was not just down to the fans, but the Russian people: had they rejected the tournament it wouldn’t have been as good, but they welcomed it with open arms, as if it was a matter of national pride for it to be a success and to see what they are really like. They opened their hearts to us (It’s not often you are given free dried flying fish wings to have with your beer) and in turn we have opened our heart to the Russian people.

At the end of the day. France won the World Cup, but in terms of friendship and understanding, we all did.



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