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France vs. Croatia final (2) French victory!

Johnny Bliss

The many contradictory Faces of the World Cup 2018 in Russia

The 2018 World Cup in Russia is over. As the smoke clears, we ask the question: how did it all go, really? Local stand-up comedians, professional footballers, activists and lifelong fans discuss the ins and outs of this year’s unpredictable and exciting sports spectacle.

By Johnny Bliss

So how, exactly, did this year’s World Cup go? The question is not nearly so simple as it sounds. Or rather, there are so many different ways of answering that question, the answers varying drastically depending on the interests of the person answering the question. Are you looking at it from the perspective of a sports fan? Or rather from the perspective of an activist, who is hoping to see Russia become a more tolerant country? Or from a Russian person, hoping to see an improvement in the country’s future reputation?

Johnny's Journeys WM Russia Special 180721
Russian fan with flag

Johnny Bliss

For me, as a Canadian journalist living in Austria, my answer is thus: it went. It really, really did. The matches were furious and unpredictable; the Russian people in general were open and generous; the authorities were censorious and controlling of the overall propaganda; the protesters were nevertheless there, and still made themselves heard, whether protesting with Rainbow shirts in the Moscow underground („Hidden Flag“), or running out onto the pitch during the big game, in front of the eyes of the whole world (below).

At the very least, the notoriously violent Football hooligans we all dreaded meeting were in short supply (both local and international!), as were the infamously cold and bad-mannered Muscovites (well-mannered Muscovites, however, were easy to find!). Additionally, nothing truly terrible happened during the tournament (unless you count that whole pension thing).

Sports fans at St. Petersburg pub

Johnny Bliss

Russian fans watching the semi-final against Croatia at a St. Petersburg sports bar...

For that, you can probably thank Putin’s „hands on“ approach to governance. Seldom could one go anywhere publicly and not see any sign of the omnipresent security forces; from malls to parks to even many bus stops, the thought seemed to be: if tourists could conceivably come here, then representatives of Russia’s security apparatus should be here as well.

This does of course make it even more impressive that the protest group Pussy Riot somehow managed to make their way onto the pitch and provoke a scene during the final game between France and Croatia!

Eine als Polizist verkleidete Aktivistin von Pussy Riot wird von Security-Mitarbeitern vom Fußballfeld getragen

APA/AFP/Mladen ANTONOV

A member of Pussy Riot getting dragged away after their pitch invasion

However, I did find out some things I didn’t know before, during my three weeks covering the tournament for FM4. They are as follows:

Discovery #1: Russia has a great football team!

Okay, you didn’t need to be a journalist to have learned that one. But still, it happens so often that the national team of the country hosting a World Cup or a European Championship (*cough*Austria*cough*) so severely fails to impress or distinguish themselves in any lasting way, that when a Host Nation actually does, it becomes newsworthy just for that fact alone. (Unless, of course, you’re talking about a legendary football nation like Brazil, where in 2014 they got seemingly crushed under the weight of high expectations!)

Expectations for the Russian team were very low coming in. And yet, there they were, playing hard against Croatia in the quarter-finals, losing only at the last possible moment in penalty kicks. And we all know that could have gone either way. It’s entirely possible, had they won that, we might have been watching Russia playing against France in the finals a couple of weeks later!

FIFA Fan Fest, Moscow

Johnny Bliss

FIFA Fan Fest, Moscow

Discovery #2: Russian people do not generally conform to stereotype!

Or at least during a World Cup, they don’t. Everyone was just so overjoyed to see all these foreign visitors in their country, that it was all smiles and warmth, and immediate helpfulness all the time. At some moments, I nearly would have wondered if I’d somehow stumbled back into Canada!

(Admittedly, my first encounter with a Russian on this trip very much did conform to stereotype, however. I accidentally stepped on a burly fellow’s foot in Moscow baggage claim, and he growled at me like a bear. My life briefly flashed before my eyes, before he decided that it was probably not a good idea to deck the foreign tourist at this particular moment in history.)

Sunny game at Moscow Stadium Luzhniki

Johnny Bliss

Moscow Luzhniki Stadium, Russia vs. Spain

Discovery #3: Russian authorities do often conform to stereotype!

All of the most negative aspects of my coverage of this tournament will fall squarely into the category of „unfortunate and unnecessary things that really shouldn’t have happened, but did.“

Take, for example, the problems that the St. Petersburg „Diversity House“ had on the night before the start of the tournament. The owner informed them last minute that he didn’t want them there, and they should leave. With no legal recourse, the activists in charge had to scramble to find another option.

Or the protest ban. Protests were made illegal during the entirety of the World Cup, everywhere there were football-related events; naturally, protests still happened, but they were quickly stopped, and the protesters detained or arrested (for example, see what happened to the British human rights activist Peter Tatchell, who protested on June 14th near the Kremlin, against persecution of gay people in Chechnya and around the country).

As I’ve said, I’m not aware of any truly terrible human rights abuses taking place during the tournament itself, but given how recently some of these things have gone on, they still deserve to have space to be spoken about.

Moscow Red Square during WM

Johnny Bliss

Red Square

Discovery #4: Both Moscow and St. Petersburg are world-class cities!

Unfortunately, I only visited Moscow and St. Petersburg on this trip, so I cannot speak for the rest of Russia, only these two most international and cosmopolitan hubs.

What I can say, however, is that these are world-class cities, full of fantastic cultural hubs and creative, unusual events... these were there before the World Cup, and they’ll be there after it as well.

For example, the English-language stand up comedy night at Moscow’s Jim & Jack’s Pub was every bit as happening as one of its counterparts in Berlin or London, but with a particularly droll and self-deprecating Russian flair.

World Cup Stand-up comedy, Jim & Jack's, Moscow

Johnny Bliss

Stand up comedy at Jim & Jack’s...

Naturally, the humorists did milk the World Cup for material, but only because it was there; they (we) did not need the World Cup, merely exploited it!

Other Highlights: The Volunteer World Cup

The concept behind the so-called “Volunteer’s World Cup” was that two teams of FIFA volunteers would got together on a small pitch at Moscow’s Red Square to play a match against each other. And both teams were joined on the pitch by some well-known professional football players: Spain’s Michel Salgado and Brazil’s Julio Baptista!

Press scrum with Michel Selgado

Johnny Bliss

Michel Salgado with journalists (including yours truly)

Other Highlights: The Enthusiasm of the Icelanders!

Before I went to Russia, like a crazy person I traveled to the remote Westfjords region of Iceland, to watch Iceland’s historic first World Cup match ever... with friends and family members of the National team!

Iceland vs. Argentina: before
Iceland vs. Argentina: during & after
Iceland fans in the Westfjords

Johnny Bliss

Iceland fans in Ísafjörður

Other Highlights: The Sheer Unpredictability of the Game!

Sport-wise, nothing went as anyone would have expected - much hyped teams went home early, while unlikely underdogs made it all the way to the finals. Over the course of the tournament, I caught up with sports fans multiple times, to see how they were dealing with all of the drama!

The changing allegiances of international sports fans
Fans reminisce on a crazy World Cup
France vs. Croatia final (3) after the game

Johnny Bliss

After the final game....

But then there was Vlad.

Vlad the Muscovite talks about Football

Not all Russians can love football, I suppose.

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The 2018 World Cup in Russia is over. As the smoke clears, our roaming reporter Johnny Bliss, reporting from the Russian cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, asks the question: how did it all go, really? Join our Johnny as he meets local stand-up comedians, professional footballers, activists, and lifelong fans, to discuss the ins and outs of this year’s unpredictable and exciting sports spectacle. July 21st, from 12.00 to 13.00 on, on FM4 Update.

Missed the program? No problem! Check out the podcast:

Johnny's Journeys WM Russia Special 180721

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