With the 2018 World Cup final barely one week away, Duro Ikhazuagbe who has been covering the Mundial from one city to the other gives insight into how this hosting has changed global perception of Russia
Prior to the kick off of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, there was so much negativity about Russia in the western media that it was forcing a rethink for most football fans and journalists that have booked their passage to the host country of the Mundial.
Apart from the earlier tags of racism which a few disgruntled elements within the country had allowed to be blown out of proportion, those against Russia hosting the 2018 World Cup did everything within their powers to paint terrible impression about the place.
Things were so bad in the British media that Englandâ€™s Three Lions defender, Danny Rose, warned his family not to come to Russia to watch him play as he could not guarantee their safety. Such was the fear created around the Russian society that even some members of the NigerianÂ National Assembly were questioning the need to endanger the lives of the Super Eagles players and officials in such a perceived hostile environment.
But Russia 2018 has turned out one of the most beautiful World Cups to be hosted by any nation in recent history. Perhaps, for us Africans here, it rates next to the 2010 edition hosted by South Africa that is adjudged the most family-friendly Mundial to date.
Right from the gateway into Moscow, the Domodedovo Airport presented visitors for the World Cup with a refreshing welcome bouquet that may initially pass for pretence. A bus ride from the airport into the city of Moscow even presents more alluring faces, everyone had that infectious smile of â€˜welcome to our countryâ€™. Everywhere one turns in that bustling city of about 12 million people, it was love and welcome arms for visitors.
â€œThis is surprising! This was not the impression I was given of the Russian people become coming out here for the World Cup,â€ observed widely traveled Sporting Vanguard Editor, Tony Ubani, while expressing his admiration for the spectacle presented by the host country to visitors to Russia.
Among fans, players and coaches, everyone is sharing these expressions of surprise of how what they are witnessing is totally different from the pictures of Russia painted before visitors arrived here.
Supporters from all continents and cultures have found themselves welcomed with open arms, both by smiling locals and ever-helpful tournament volunteers are at our service.
From Moscow to St Petersburg, Kazan, Volgograd, Kaliningrad, Ekaterinburg, Sochi, Saransk, Samara, Rostov-On-Don and Nizhny Novgorod, the story of friendliness is all the same.
Super Eagles Captain, John Mikel Obi, who has a Russian girlfriend similarly painted a beautiful picture of the host country despite Nigeria not making it out of Group D to the Last 16 stage of the 2018 edition of the tournament. â€œWe have thoroughly enjoyed our stay here in Russia with excellent facilities at our disposal and friendly people everywhere.â€ He was particularly blown away by the hospitality presented to him and his colleagues at the teamâ€™s base camp in Essentuki. â€œWhat we have here are world-class facilities that can compare with the very best in any other part of the world.â€ Having played in England with Chelsea for over a decade before moving to Tianjin Teda in Chinese Super League, Mikel has seen the best the world has to offer and certainly knows quality when he sees one.
Iran coach, Carlos Queiroz, also shared similar sentiments about what the Russians offered the world for the 2018 edition of the football showpiece. “Everything is top, top, top. I think this is what really matters at the World Cup: the spirit of the game, the great facilities and the great environment. And for us, everything has been perfect. Everyone has been so kind, and I must congratulate the Russian people on their wonderful World Cup,” observed the former Manchester United assistant coach who like Nigeriaâ€™s coach, Gernot Rohr, could not lead the Iranians to the knock out phase.
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez and Janne Andersson of Sweden also gave good testimony to the atmosphere provided by the Russians. Said Martinez: “It’s all very impressive. I’ve been directly involved in the last two World Cups, seeing every day the logistics and the way the organisation works. And I must say that this World Cup is by far the best I have been involved in.
“The hospitality we have experienced has been incredible. The level of it has surprised everyone, and it has given a fantastic image of Russian people and Russia in general.”
Anderson also painted a picture of â€˜Aâ€™ grade for Russia on the hosting. “Absolutely magical,” was his impression of the St Petersburg Stadium – one of several amazing arenas packed to the rafters game after game. Yet it is the stories of friendship and warmth that have stood out.
Trust Nigerians. Some have found love and having good times out here. One Nigerian fan who simply gave his name as Emmanuel said he flew into Russia from Abuja for the Mundial. He told THISDAY his major challenge was the language. â€œI have tried hard communicating using my Google translator. I meet a lot of friendly girls but cannot really express my love and how I feel emotionally.â€ But mother luck smiled on this particular fan when he met one Russian girl, Katerina who speaks English. They have remained inseparable since. â€œI have found love, She is teaching me Russian language.â€ Emmanuel is just one of the thousands of fans savouring the friendly atmosphere that Russia has provided for the World Cup.
In a hangout in the Vasileostrovskly district where four-star Park Inn Pribaltiyskaya by Radisson Hotel is situated, some Argentina fans were truly at home. Every evening, they gathered to catch fun, soaking themselves in beer and spirits. â€œRussia is good. We are enjoying this World Cup, very good,â€ one of them, Franco, told this reporter one very cold night that the weather was +12C . Although the Argentines reduced their frequency at the place after France sent the Albiceleste home in the Last 16 game, Japanese fans took over the hang out after the South Americans left.
One word in Russia that tends to capture the warmth and hospitality offered by the host is â€œSPASIBO which means â€˜Thank Youâ€™. Thank You Russia for proving the world wrong. This hosting has changed global perception about the people and the country. It will be no surprise that after this Mundial the volume of tourists coming here for vacation will triple. St Petersburg on my mind next summer holiday.