On a crisp Friday morning in Moscow this July 6, my husband and I – and about 500 others from as far afield as Guatemala, Argentina, Pakistan and Japan – boarded a speed train to the Russian City of Nizhny Novgorod for the World Cup quarterfinal between Uruguay and France.
Blood, sweat, tears, adulation and patriotism were all simultaneously on display. After all, who wouldn’t want to go to a World Cup, or want their country to qualify? Like many before me, and many after me, it’s been a longtime dream to go to a World Cup and see one of the world’s biggest sports events first hand. In my case, the seed was planted at 17, when I painstakingly tuned in to every match at 1 AM to watch Spain power through to win the trophy in 2010, in South Africa.
Since 2022 is still awhile away, when the tickets went up for sale in March – just days after we got back from our post-wedding ‘minimoon’ – it seemed foolish not to at least give it a chance.
“It’s a one in a million shot,” I told my husband.
Turns out we were one in a million, and after agonizing hours spent gazing into a computer screen, we managed to get tickets to the game. we couldn’t have been more excited, even if we had no idea who we would be seeing play.
Fan ID and transport
Russia, for its part, organised the event to perfection. Just days after we bought our tickets, we were directed to the ‘Fan ID’ website, which was basically a one-stop-shop for our Russia trip, with the ID serving as our visa, a stadium entry pass and a free ticket on public transportation during game days, and on trains transporting fans between the various cities of Russia.
Once we registered and received our Fan IDs – which we picked at an office in Dubai’s Wafi Mall a few weeks later – we were directed to the website of Russia’s transportation service to book the long-distance train to Nizhny Novgorod. Among the options was a 6:35 AM speed train that would see us arrive at the formerly forbidden-for-foreigners ‘secret’ Soviet city of Nizhny Novgorod at about 10 AM.
We chose this option, knowing it would give us time to explore the city and get in on the action in the Fan Zone before the game kicked off at 5 PM.
A melting pot
What I didn’t realise about the World Cup is how many different nationalities go to see, even if they didn’t qualify or ever have a real chance of qualifying. Prime example: while waiting at a coffee shop at the railway station in Moscow, a friendly man walked up to us and asked
“hola amigos, van a Nizhny?”
My husband, who is half-Mexican, half-German, was – like most Mexican fans at this World Cup – routinely stopped to chat with adoring Russian fans of the team, respectful South Koreans and even smug Brazilians eager to gloat about their 2-0 Round of 16 victory. Of course, much of this had to do with the fact that he was proudly wearing his green Selección jersey everywhere we went.
We promptly joined Angel, an Atlanta-based Guatemalan, at his table. Like many of the Latin Americans I’ve met him in my life, he was pleasantly inquisitive and curious about everyone and anything. Having found out I am not, in fact, Mexican and I don’t speak Spanish, it wasn’t long until he drew out our entire life stories. He was particularly curious about the mechanics of a Hindu marrying a Catholic.
It was then I truly realised that at the World Cup, you can’t help but make friends. There is a common love for the sport, and similar effort and sacrifices that everyone makes to get there, all of which combines to form a World Cup fever that takes over body and soul from the minute you land. Of course, with the heavy alcohol consumption that reduces inhibitions, you’d be hard pressed to find a person who didn’t make many different random friends-for-the-road-but-not-for-life during their trip.
Before long, Angel was telling us his own life story. He was particularly happy to talk about his first World Cup experience in Brazil four years before. According to him, it was fun but not as organised as Russia 2018.
“We learnt from our experience in the last one. We hardly had any days in between matches to rest and Brazil didn’t have trains to and from the games like Moscow,” Angel told us in between coffees. “We had to rent a taxi from Rio to Sao Paolo and Brasilia, and the distances were really quite a lot.”
Partly, Angel was speaking to us because he found friendly Latin faces that cold morning in the Moscow train station, where he was waiting on a cousin who was traveling from Guatemala. The cousin – Daniel – had been on a delayed flight, and soon after landing just a few hours before, called Angel to tell him not to wait up for him at his hotel room, but to meet him at the train station. So far he hadn’t showed – with 20 minutes to go until the train departed, my husband and I exchanged skeptical looks having decided that Angel’s cousin wouldn’t be joining us that morning.
Luckily – there’s a happy ending here. Angel was safely reunited with his cousin at 6:25 AM, just 5 minutes before the train was scheduled to depart.
On our way!
Russian trains are prompt and leave on schedule, whether or not you are on them. Growing up with India’s very well connected train system, I was still used to train delays, long signal stops and late arrivals. But Russia doesn’t operate like that. The train rolled out of Moscow’s Kurksy station the minute it said it would, and the empty seats suggested that more than one person had missed the train.
Seats on the free trains were pre-assigned to avoid any kind of skirmishes, and the train even comes with a diner car which, even at 8 AM, felt more like a dive bar on a Friday night than an early morning train. One poor soul, clearly tired from the excursions of the days and weeks before, was even passed out in the corner, overcome by Russian brews.
As fate would have it, we bumped into Angel and his cousin in the bar. After a few shots of Russian vodka – taken with pickles – you could almost touch the excitement in the air. The bar car got louder and louder as we got to our destination, with the thick stench of beer and vodka wafting over the boisterous and increasingly excited fans as we prepared to arrive in Nizhny.
The restaurant car manager for his part was encouraging our drinking and even at one point saying,
“Anything else? Beer, Vodka or Whiskey?”
As the train slowly pulled into Nizhny the bar car was declared out of order and we, bleary-eyed and slightly tipsy at 10 AM in the morning, moved back to our seats, to our predominantly Uruguayan cabin. The fans were in their full light-blue regalia, singing their football anthem ‘Cielo de un Solo Color’. It was clear the rest of the day would be just as eventful.