The UK government is likely to have to eat a lot of crow this year. Despite all the fiery rhetoric about Russian “aggression” and secret spies deployed by Vladimir Putin all around the world, and especially in England, some British citizens came to Russia anyway. The FIFA World Cup is being played here, after all, and football is very important for these people.
As the result of this, the people from one of the most stalwart Western powers are getting a completely different and first-hand, view of Russia.
A news piece in the Guardian, entitled “Message to the English: come to Russia and feel the love” blew the lid off the seal that the British propagandists thought they had placed on the great country to their east, and it was done simply and in the most direct way possible, by portraying the experience of the English tourists who are in Russia en masse now for the tournament. Tom Rosenthal writes:
This. World. Cup. Is. Good. Having been lucky enough to be at Nizhny Novgorod for England 6 Panama 1(stick that in your hats), St Petersburg for Argentina 2 Nigeria 1(Messi’s foot of God) and Kaliningrad for Belgium against England (the game was literally pointless), I get to write in The Guardianto say my personal experience is that Russia is absolutely killing this World Cup, which is a vast improvement on spies in Zizzi*. The organisation of this tournament has been fantastic and you’ll struggle to find anyone who’ll say otherwise, which is not because they’re a double-agent or a Twitter bot, but because it’s true.
Newspaper headlines“Bloodthirsty hooligans vow murder”, “Russian Ultras: KID BOOTCAMP” and “Russian hooligans warn England fans ‘prepare to DIE’’’. A BBC documentary called Russia’s Hooligan Army. A Foreign Office warning of “heightened risks of violence”. What do these things have in common? Well, they all sound like things Ross Kemp would mumble in his sleep, but they are also UK media reports that put a lot of English people off having an experience like mineand having the opportunity to experience first-hand which country puts us out on penalties.
It’s so trite to say the people have been amazing… but the response of the Russian populace to England fans has been the polar opposite of what we were told to guard against. Mark Roberts, head of UK football policing, warned against taking England flags to Russia, for fear of being too imperialistic and inciting violence. He might have felt a little silly in Victory Square, Kaliningrad, with St George’s crosses draped over every inch of the U Gasheka pub, native onlookers cheering along to the Umbro-clad mire of English lager-lads singing adapted Atomic Kitten songs (“Southgate you’re the one, you still turn me on … football’s coming home again”). If flags are universally signals of peremptory intent, tell that to the Russian teenager who asked all the fans he met to sign his with where they were from. Desecrating the sacred colours of the motherland with “Jeff, Grimsby” doesn’t get you put in a gulag, apparently.
And if this all sounds too magical to be true, that’s how it felt.When numerous Russians asked why we were being told not to come to their country – once phrasing it heartbreakingly as, “Why don’t you like us?” – I initially worried it was some sort of state edict that Putin had issued into their mind-chips to trick us. But it quickly became obvious that it was I, plagued with worries of being attacked if I donned an England shirt, who had been operating in a fantasy of disinformation. My first Airbnb host said how happy he was to meet an Englishman, as his favourite author was Stephen Fry and described how he’d very much enjoyed the BBC adaptation of War and Peace, and that Russians felt a great affinity for the British as they also had a great empire in the past but are now far less powerful and in somewhat of an identity crisis in the present. I tried to return the compliment but am so poorly read I settled for saying it was great when Andrei Arshavin scored four goals for Arsenal at Anfield.
Mr. Rosenthal is not alone in his observations. The FIFA World Cup has created amazing exposure for the Russian Federation to the Western world. With many hundreds of thousands of tourists here from countless countries, the air in Russia is one of enjoyment, delight and interest as people from all over the world get to enjoy the games together, and to get to know what it really is like here.
This is not a phenomenon that is restricted to Moscow or St Petersburg, either. Eleven cities are FIFA game sites, and for the people here following the matches, it is a huge opportunity to explore a whole lot of the nation and to get a pretty solid idea of what life is like here, and about what the attitudes of the Russian people are towards Westerners.
There are two nations that stand to receive the biggest surprise from viewing the reality of Russia versus the propaganda about the country: The United Kingdom and the United States. Although the American soccer team did not make it to the FIFA tournament, many Americans did, and they have been seen in Moscow and St Petersburg en masse, and they are astounded by what Russia is really like.
But for the British, as Mr. Rosenthal noted above, it is a completely radical experience.
Sputnik News writes that in Moscow’s famous Red Square, late in the evening around eight o’clock PM, on a small pitch, two teams met to make a gentlemen’s game of European football (a.k.a soccer).
The teams were comprised of Russian fans, and… British fans. They joined the game with relish, and with a very friendly spirit of competition. Sputnik writes:
As the sun goes down on Red Square, twenty-three British fans jog up and down a miniature football pitch; they practice high knees, backwards jogs and heel kicks. They’re warming up for one of the more intense games of the tournament: England fans vs Russian fans.
…Those kitted up and ready to play may not be professional footballers on the English side, but the game is a serious one. The organiser, Richard Peers, runs the British School of Football in Moscow. He explains how this game symbolises ‘friendship through sport’; with sport being the ‘best means to engage’. Given the undeniably tempestuous UK/ Russia relations of late, this World Cup has been an opportunity to smooth out some of the diplomatic rifts between the nations. An example of sport spearheading through the swamp of politics.
It is an interesting juxtaposition. In the run-up to the Cup, the opposite was true, politics was all anybody talked about. As Mr. Peers notes, “after all that has happened over the last few months, UK/ Russia relations are very different.” This is an opportunity to put the countries’ positives into the media spotlight, and to promote the true reality of Russia. A month ago, when people discussed England versus Russia, they were not picturing a friendly played out in the heart of the Russian capital. Most likely, they would hark back to the European Championships of 2016.
The FIFA championships of 2018 have placed Russia in the world spotlight like never before and at a most opportune time. Great numbers of Westerners descended upon Russia, some 25,000 expected from Mexico alone, and for weeks already, Moscow’s famous Nikolksy Street has been the crossroads of the world, as fans from all the participating nations, and visitors from still more nations, converged in Russia’s capital city.
— Maud Start (@Maud_SputnikUk) July 2, 2018
The stormy political relations between the United Kingdom and Moscow of late had their effect on some, but as Sputnik goes on to say, coming to Moscow heralded quite the discovery:
Al Humphries ‘Big Al’, 54, from Northampton, is in the stands watching the game. He notes his anxiety in planning his trip to Russia — talking specifically on the subject of the European championship two years ago in Marseilles.
“I was frightened at first. I thought I wasn’t going to come. I thought it was going to be a bloodbath. Especially for England fans, we’re a target, and we’ve got a reputation.”
But with such beliefs, why did ‘Big Al’ decide to come to Russia for the World Cup championships?
“I thought things would have changed, and of course, it was right. It’s not the same anymore. I thought it was going to be very nasty here, but it’s just been unbelievable. I mean just look at this! A friendly!“
Big Al gestures to the people on the pitch. Both teams are well into the game, sweat flying.
Big Al’s mate, Matt from Warsaw, weighs in. He said he had not been afraid of coming to Russia for the World Cup, but this raises some eyebrows among his peers. There were not many British fans that were not slightly concerned in the run-up to the tournament. As a result, the reality of Russia has come as a surprise to many.
“Getting the Fan Ids and visas, easy. Tickets, ok, I had to go collect them myself. But, the streets are clean, the police are polite, and the underground is amazing. I think this is really good for Russia. Everyone has been so welcoming, and you know, the Western world has a view of Russia that could be changed through this World Cup.“