Moscow is big. Big and busy. Very big. Very busy. Very busy and big. These, you will surely recognise, are terrific insights from a seasoned traveller. But, as uninspired as these observations are, they are the first two things that strike you when you visit the Russian capital.
After all, the World Cup is in town. There are two venues here and, anecdotally, a lot of people seem to be using it as a base from which to travel to the other cities. Walking anywhere is a bit of a struggle, and getting anywhere in a car will take you a while, which is presumably why the predominant driving style seems to be, shall we say, “aggressive.”
“I guess it’s been much busier here since it all started, right?” I ask a local. “Not really,” she replies. “It’s always like this.”
Moscow has absorbed the World Cup without really breaking its stride. Which shouldn’t really be much of a surprise, because that’s what big cities with solid infrastructures do. People seem to be broadly positive about their home being turned into FIFA’s big theme park for a month, and most have been virtually falling over themselves to make visitors feel welcome.
Which, again, is probably not much of a surprise. Russians appear to be well aware that they have a reputation as cold and brusque, and they’re attempting to change it through kindness, one person at a time. Because that’s all you can do, on an individual level.
Of course, the general spirit of bonhomie is helped, to say the least, by the host nation’s extraordinary performances so far. You almost feel cheated that, having been promised an unparalleled shambles, Russia have been so incredibly good. We were all assured that this was a team without a formation, settled XI, clue or hope, but what has actually transpired has shocked everyone.
Not least the locals, it seems. The expressions on the faces of Russian fans watching their 3-1 victory over Egypt carried the shock of a lottery winner. Actually, a lottery winner who’d thought they’d left their ticket in a pair of jeans that went through the wash. Actually, a lottery winner who hadn’t even bought a ticket.
Moscow on Tuesday evening resembled one of those absurd tourist information films that hosts of sporting events sometimes produce. People were hugging. People were honking car horns. People were actually dancing in the streets.
The Metro - and, without wishing to sound too Partridge, the Metro system really is as good as everyone says - at about 11.30, not long after full-time, was flooded with joyous Russians, skipping between trains. At one point, what looked like a marching band - drum, sax, trumpet - gleefully paraded through a station. Outside, another one soundtracked an impromptu gathering.
Early on Wednesday morning, a taxi on the way to Sheremeytovo airport had a Russian flag attached to it. And not one of those little flags you used to get from petrol stations, plastic and clipped onto a door, but one that was at least four feet wide, fluttering from a wooden pole somehow jammed into the back window.
The thing most noticeable is that almost everyone unleashing this joy on the streets of Moscow is young. As in, teenager young. Not an enormous shock perhaps, because these are the fortunate ones who have not yet had the enthusiasm knocked out of them by the grinding realities of life. But there is something life-affirming about seeing a generation who, in general, have had the shit kicked out of them, enjoying something as uncomplicated as this.
Russia is happy drunk, which of course means there’s a hangover to come, but who thinks about the morning after when you’re three sheets to the wind? Who knows how this team have managed to transform from honking no-hopers to one that have already scored more goals than Spain did in 2010. But it has undoubtedly given the tournament a shot in the arm.
This is almost certainly all surface. The problems Russia has will remain after July 15. But here lies the power of sport, football and the World Cup, enough to apply a balm to wounds, if not entirely cure them. This optimism will wither at some point, but who really cares? We cling to what we can, and Russia is clinging on as long as this lasts.
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