A month of street parties, singing, beer and vodka – but what will be the real legacy of Russia's World Cup?
A few hours before the game against Colombia, a group of England fans took over a couple of bars on Nikolskaya Ulitsa, the pedestrianised street running off the corner of Red Square.
They draped flags over tables, across the windows of the two bars and on the floor in front of the terrace. There was Stockport, Exeter, Leicester, Reading. There were chants for Gareth Southgate, Jamie Vardy and the now universal refrain: “please don’t take me home”.
For much of the tournament, the street, lined by lights, was the hub of Moscow’s World Cup. South American fans, Iranians, Mexicans and Moroccans occupied different portions of it, beating drums, pinning up banners and signing songs.
After the opening game, Russia’s 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia, the colour and noise was complemented by the host nation’s flag, by chants of “Ros-si-ya”. The hesitancy of the weeks running up to the tournament faded away. With each set of fixtures, as different teams journeyed to Moscow, Russians came to Nikolskaya Ulitsa, keen to sample a different sort of atmosphere, to take in the unique spectacle. They were determined to savour the moment, to forge memories that they would, years later, relay to grandchildren around kitchen tables.
In the fourth set of games, the first knock-out round, the English fans arrived in Moscow. They were small in number, just a couple of thousand, but enough to make their presence felt. Many had stayed away, at home. They feared a repeat of the events in Marseille, two years earlier. Their perception was influenced by media reports on Russia, by worries about rampaging hooligans, of racism, homophobia and a harsh political regime. Some didn’t want to give legitimacy to what they perceived was Putin’s World Cup.
But as they travelled around Russia, England fans interacted with Russian people. They found commonality over beer and vodka, had conversations about football, music, fashion and learned that life isn’t so very different in Volgograd and Barnsley. In Nizhny Novgorod, the night before the match against Panama, two middle-aged fans from Moston, near Manchester, told me that Russia was nothing like they expected. “More England fans would be here”, they said, “if they knew it was going to be like this”.
In front of the bars on Nikolskaya Ulitsa, the England fans attracted a crowd of Russian passers-by. Most had their phones out, taking videos to send to friends and families. As the chants went on, an informal queue formed. Russians were waiting their turn to take pictures with the England flags and nearby fans. Some wanted selfies with people in fancy dress. Others knelt among the flags, flicking out two-fingered peace signs for the camera. I was tapped on the shoulder by a guy in his mid-twenties. “Are you English”, he said with a heavy Russian accent, “let’s make a selfie.” After he had taken a few snaps, he said: “I love London”. Naturally, I asked him when he had visited. “Never”, he replied. “But I’ve seen it on TV”.
England occupies a complex place in the Russian imaginary. It is probably the country in Western Europe for which Russians hold the most affection, about which they know the most, though political conversations will often run aground. Most Russians, especially in big cities, know a little bit about England. More, probably, than they know about France, or Germany, or Italy.
England filters through into the Russian cultural sphere, with subtitled BBC productions available on streaming services, with English music blasted over the airwaves and with English football watched, each weekend, in packed bars. Young people are taught English at school and university. They aspire to visit London, or to continue their education there, a route made popular by Russia’s super-rich, who buy up property and places at fee-paying schools.
But for many Russians, the World Cup offered their first real encounter with English people, never mind those from Peru, Mexico or Colombia. They had watched the television programmes, listened to the music and enjoyed the football, but, as England travelled to Volgograd, Nizhny Novgorod, Kaliningrad, Samara and, heartbreakingly, only twice to Moscow, Russians were confronted by the England of reality. For the most part, the tournament passed by with little trouble.
Pre-tournament warnings had little bearing on the experience of the World Cup. Russians worried about hostility from visiting fans, from English people angered by recent geopolitical developments, were quickly stripped of their concerns. Eventually, locals and visiting fans realised that everybody was here for one thing: a party, a huge celebration, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Russians to welcome the world and for the world to be welcomed to Russia.
Now, with huge numbers of England fans heading home, unable to stump up the enthusiasm for a third-place play-off, questions turn to the legacy of Russia’s World Cup. In Russia, people who have enjoyed the month-long festival have begun to ask questions about the country’s future. They wonder if the freedom, the party spirit, the celebratory use of public space will endure after the tournament. They ask if their cities can be so alive with colour and noise during the tournament, why can’t things be so enjoyable more often. Why can’t spontaneous street parties occupy central stretches of Russian cities next summer, or the summer after, instead of public enjoyment requiring the prior approval of the authorities.
Russians wonder, too, if the experiences had by visiting fans will create a more complete picture of their country abroad. England fans, and those from elsewhere, have been confronted by the Russia of everyday, not the Russia of news cycles. Now, when foreign correspondents report on an egregious speech by a Russian parliamentarian, the fans that visited are equipped with the experiences to qualify the bad press. They know that Russia’s politics does not always represent its people, that the friends they made in bars, or in stadiums or on flights, are not defined by their political leaders.
Initially, there will be a hangover, a little sadness, as the party winds down, the drop down to earth after the euphoria of a unique event. But, soon enough, Russians and fans from across the world will look back on the 2018 World Cup with fondness. It is still too early to ascertain any positive legacy from the tournament, but it appears certain that there will not be a negative one.