Physician, writer and politician, DR WALE OKEDIRAN was in Russia for the 2018 World Cup. He brings back memories of the event including the beautiful cities that hosted the football event.
IT’S almost midnight in Saint Petersburg and the sun is yet to set. From my vantage point at the window of the bedroom of my rented apartment on Muchnoy Pereulok 1, Tsentralny District, the city appeared very beautiful in the brilliant late night sunshine. Outside on the streets, bustling Russians were out to mark the day when the sky stayed reddish-gold all night. Hours after my dinner, I was surprised when rays of sun that peeked through the window curtains kept disturbing my sleep. Unknown to me, I had arrived Russia on the Summer Solstice (also known as White Night) ‘The Longest Day of the Year’ with about 19 hours of sunshine. As I waited for the sun to set, an advert in the St Petersburg metro map caught my eye; “Celebrate the summer solstice with drumming, dance and ritual. Integral Church will join St. Petersburg’s Body Electric to honour the seasons and the spiritualistic “changing of the guard” that comes with the solstice. Dancers and drummers of all skill levels welcome, but this event is only open to people ages 12 and older.’’ Seduced by the thoughts of an all night drumming and dancing, I briefly flirted with the idea of throwing off my pyjamas and joining the revellers for the celebration, but I thought otherwise and went to bed. When I went back to the window around 1.00 a.m., the sun had disappeared only to reappear 3 hours later for the beginning of another long day.
Welcome to Russia, the land of “endless wonders and achievements,” the land of great writers, musicians and inventors. For example, it was the brilliant Russian engineer, Mikhail Kalashnikov, who invented the AK-47, one of the most popular small arms weapon in the world. Till date, the powerful gun remains one of the most controversial masterpieces from Russia. At 17,125,200 square kilometres (6,612,100 sq mi). Russia is the largest country in the world, covering more than one-eighth of the earth, and the ninth most populous, with over 144 million people as of December 2017,excluding Crimea.
I had come to Russia to watch the 2018 edition of the World Cup, my first ever. My decision to make the trip was inspired by Alex Iwobi’s 73rd minute goal at the Nigeria/Zambia match, which I watched live at the ‘Nest Of Champions Stadium’ in Uyo on October 7 2017. It was Iwobi’s goal that made Nigeria the first African country to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The feat gave the country her sixth World Cup finals appearance having first qualified for the international football showpiece in 1994.
Another reason for my Russian trip was Literature. As an ardent lover of Russian Literature, who has devoured the works of several Russian literary icons such as Leo Tolstoy, Boris Pasternack, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov, among others, I was looking forward to a visit to the land of the ‘Literary masters’.
Since spectators themselves sometimes watch football matches with occasional tragic pensiveness, I decided to go for a medical check up before boarding the plane to Russia. More so, I didn’t want Messi, the Argentine soccer maestro to mess up my blood pressure during the potentially hypertensive match between Nigeria and Argentina on June 26. Luckily, my doctor found my blood pressure and heart good enough to withstand the expected ‘nail biting’ and ‘leg kicking’ tension of the games.
It was obvious that Russia was ready to impress the world during the World Cup event as I arrived Saint Petersburg’s Pulkovo airport on a rainy afternoon into the waiting hands of a team made up of volunteer Russian students. I would later discover that only very few Russians speak English and that communication would be a big challenge during my stay in Russia. Also waiting to receive me was my friend Tayo Popoola, who had also come all the way from the US with his long term colleague, Dion. Together, the trio boarded a rental car driven by Tayo to our apartment on Muchnoy Pereulok 1.
My first match in Russia was the Argentina/Croatia match on June 21, 2018. Since I didn’t have a ticket for the encounter, I watched the match a few hours after my arrival in Russia at the FIFA Fan Centre in St Petersburg. The experience showed how the experience of watching football opens several dimensions in time and space. The Fan Centre was a bee hive. The whole place was a microcosm of humanity with the young and old from all corners of the world enjoying the beautiful game and its magic. And despite differences in colour, tongue and habit, nobody got in anybody’s way because the World Cup is not only about football, but also about so many other things. It is about friendship, networking, history, tourism, national and international identity as well as, humanity.
In order to make my next match which is the Belgium/Tunisia match on June 23 at the Spartak Stadium in Moscow, Tayo, Dion and I had to depart Saint Petersburg for Moscow on a High Speed Train which arrived the Russian capital city after a pleasant four hour journey. With a population of 13.2 million, Moscow the Russian capital is the country’s most populous city.
The following day after breakfast, I departed to the Spartak Stadium via the Moscow Metro, a massive multi-layered underground mammoth of trains and masonry for the Belgium/Tunisia match. Although slated for 3.00 p.m. with the stadium’s gates to be opened at 12 noon, my friends and I decided to depart our apartment by 10,00 am to avoid the crush of the teeming football fans. Spartak stadium, owned by one of Russia’s most popular football teams, Spartak Moscow, is a matter of great pride to Russians. Security checks at the stadium entrance were very strict as football fans were made to pass through metal detectors. Even foodstuffs were disallowed so much so that a small orange which I planned to take during the match was seized at the gate.
Although the Russian police seemed to turn a blind eye on some misdemeanours like public drinking and traffic obstructions by joyous fans, it still took its job very seriously. On one occasion, Tayo, Dion and I were surprised that even after donning the well known Nigerian jersey with our ID card visibly hanging on our necks, a passing police pulled up beside us as we walked down a major street in downtown Moscow in broad daylight and demanded for our international passports.
Since the long awaited Nigeria/Argentina match was to take place in Saint Petersburg on June 26, it was inevitable that we should make our way back to the city. So it was that, we found our way back to St Petersburg from Moscow via the fast train arriving at the Moskovsky Train Station in the city in the evening of June 25 with the outside temperature now a sweltering 22o0C. We spent the early part of the following day sightseeing in Saint Petersburg. One of the important places visited was the beautifully decorated Kazansky Cathedral where many Argentina fans who are Catholics were lighting candles and praying at the feet of saints obviously for success in their forthcoming encounter with Nigeria. Earlier in the day, Tayo had told me of his premonition that Nigeria was going to lose the match based on the previous encounters between the two countries where Argentina had always won. It was his belief that the psychological feeling of inferiority on behalf of the Nigerian team anytime it met Argentina will always be a big challenge for the team. I disagreed with him and predicted a Nigerian victory.
Moments later, on our way to the stadium, we passed the central part of the town where a Television crew asked for my opinion on the forthcoming Nigeria/Argentina duel. Again, I predicted a Nigerian victory. As we later moved towards the stadium, we chanced upon a crowd of football fans donning both the Nigerian and Argentina jerseys. Among the Argentina fans was a young man who spoke Hausa to me. He told me that he grew up in Katsina State where his father was a missionary doctor for many years. Although he said he was wearing an Argentina jersey, his heart was for Nigeria whom he prayed would win the match. As usual, a lot of excitement in the form of drumming, singing and dancing by both the Nigerian and Argentina fans was already on when we reached the stadium. In one corner were two Nigerian ladies with big sacks of the very popular Nigerian jersey which they sold for fifty dollars each. In another corner were a knot of football fans without tickets who were haggling with some agents who were now selling tickets at the black market rate of $400-$500 from the official rate of $120-$200. As we were taking in the convivial scene and taking photographs with fans from both sides, an agitated Nigerian fan suddenly ran towards a truck full of Russian policemen as he frantically shouted that his ticket had been stolen on the train on his way to the stadium. He was sweating and very angry as he demanded to talk to a police man who could speak English. As Tayo predicted, Nigeria lost the match to Argentina. I was depressed all night and while Tayo and Dion later went out for dinner, I remained in our apartment brooding as I struggled through a ‘mournful’ dinner of bread and chicken stew.
As a first time visitor to Russia, the World Cup nullified the Russian stereotypes of a cold and hostile country. Perhaps, a final testimony of the success of the tournament could be seen in the statement credited to the U.S. national security adviser, John Bolton who on a recent visit to President
Vladimir Putin, at the Kremlin, said; “I look forward to learning how you handled the World Cup so successfully,” as the US top official referred to the fact that the U.S. will host the 2026 World Cup along with Mexico and Canada.
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