The beautiful Game. The draw for the football World Cup in Russia, 2018, took place this afternoon in Moscow and Pelé, Maradona, Ronaldo, Messi and a billion others must have had just a little twinge of excitement as the schedule of games became clear. Kids and their dads, from France to Panama, Iran, Korea, and Japan will right now be drawing up charts plotting the route of their team to the final and ultimate victory. Hope has no boundaries.
The competition starts next June and the last time there was a large international competition (June 2016, the UEFA European Championship) Sasha and I were in Russia. We weren’t watching the football, that was in France, we were on holiday, but I did watch a couple of games.
It was a special trip. We left from Kiev and the only flights to Krasnodar took us through Minsk, Belarus. It was a pity that all we saw was the airport in a four-hour transit, because I have always wanted to look around the capital city. I have a literary tie to Minsk. Instead, we moved from one section of the airport into another in the process going through Russian immigration. I had assumed that would happen in Russia, but this was a holiday of surprises.
First we stayed in Krasnodar flying down to Sochi for the second week and had a wonderful and unusual holiday. The small parts of Russia we saw, I liked.
Krasnodar, unlike Sochi, is not the typical tourist city and that is why we choose it. It is a commercial and industrial centre and probably not as tuned into tourists as Moscow and the other great Russian cities, but the people were wonderful.
Earlier in the month Russian and English supporters had fought a pitched battle in Marseilles and so it was, with just a tad of trepidation, that I wandered into a small basement pub on the 11th June to watch England play Russia.
There were a dozen middle aged Russians watching the build up to the game on a large TV and when I arrived and ordered a beer, asking in English and pointing, heads turned. Of course, nothing happened other than they bought me a few more beers and offered me a Russian pub delicacy of a small smoked fish. I ate only one, just out of politeness. As real fans do we were the best of friends by the final whistle. The game was drawn and I don’t think any other result would have changed the camaraderie developed over two hours between real fans.
Later, Sasha and I sat outside in the sun enjoying a coffee. It was almost a perfect day.
Six days later I had my birthday in Sochi. The flight from Krasnodar was in a small plane. We took our own luggage out onto the runway before flying down, along the line of the mountain range, to the Black Sea resort. Mostly this was a typical sunny holiday by the sea with sunbathing, forgetting sun cream and great Russian food.
Sasha, of course wanted to go shopping and as she had been very patient I agreed to go with her to the Mall. It could have been anywhere in the world with the same range of shops and food outlets as you would expect in the UK or USA.
There was one surprise; rows and rows of tee-shirts emblazoned with pictures of President Putin in all his hero poses. I am wary of reporting this now and hope that President Trump doesn’t read this blog. I would hate to give him too many ideas!
And so finally we reach the point. I hope you didn’t think that this was a football and travel blog?
In Moscow today, President Putin opened the World Cup ceremony while at the same time the World Anti-Doping Agency are about to sanction Russia out of the winter Olympics.
At its best sport is noble and special and never more so than in international competition. We want our competition pure and untainted and as sports fans we have suffered years of pain as Athletics cleans itself. Russia is the pariah of world sport and in any sane world the World Cup would be nowhere near Moscow (as it shouldn’t next be held in Doha – but that’s another matter).
Moscow doesn’t feel these sensitivities and President Putin was there in the Kremlin making his speech. I have many a bone to pick with Putin but ruining my enjoyment of competitive sport is by far the greatest.