From Russia With Love: My World Cup Experience — A Photo Essay

by Ahmed Sule, CFA

On my To-Do-List, I had two things which were football related. One was to watch a live FIFA World Cup match and the other was to watch the great Lionel Messi play in the flesh. When FIFA announced that Russia would host the 2018 FIFA World Cup, I decided that I would skip the competition. This was because I bought into the narrative that Russia was an unsafe place for people who looked like me. Watching Western documentaries about blacks being attacked by Russian hooligans made Russia a no-go zone for me. I had also read the news about Putin, election rigging, fake news, Crimea and nerve gas agents. I watched British, American and other Western politician’s lay every issue at the feet of Russia.

But after Nigeria defeated Zambia in October 2017 to become the first African country to qualify for the World Cup, I made up my mind to go irrespective of what lay ahead for me in Russia. In November 2017, I bought my tickets during the first phase of ticket sales and was allocated tickets to watch all of Nigeria’s group stage matches. When the draw took place on 1 December 2017, Nigeria was placed in Group D along with Croatia, Iceland and Argentina. With Nigeria drawn against Argentina for the fifth time in six World Cups, I was about to kill two birds with one stone — Go to the World Cup and finally get to see Lionel Messi play.

I was scheduled to watch the three-group stage matches in three cities — Kaliningrad, Volgograd and St Petersburg between 16 June 2018 and 26 June 2018. However, due to work commitment and the time lag between the first and last match, I decided to skip the Croatia match and watch the Iceland and Argentina matches. Prior to leaving for Russia, I was told that it was not a wise move. I was adviced not to go to the dark corners and to always look behind my back because there are many racists and “funny” people in Russia. I shrugged off this advice, after all, you only live once.

On 20 June 2018, I woke up very early, packed my clothes and set off for City Airport.

An hour after checking in, I stepped into the KLM aeroplane for my trip to Volgograd via Amsterdam and Moscow. It took me “a year” to reach Volgograd as I left London a year younger and reached Volgograd airport a year older the following day on my birthday at 00:35 am. After getting my luggage, I took a taxi to the hotel but I was unable to get a proper sleep as I was excited about watching my first World Cup match.

In the morning, I had a breakfast and headed to Mamayev Kurgan, scene of the Battle of Stalingrad where 2 million people were killed during the Second World War. While there, I met a group of Iceland fans who were also touring the place.

In the afternoon, I headed to the Volgograd Fan Fest to watch Australia vs Denmark; France vs Peru and Argentina vs Croatia on the large screen. The atmosphere at the Fan Fest, which faced the Volga River was amazing. Fans from different parts of the world were there. We all sat together watching the matches on the big screen with French fans sitting side by side with Peruvians, Croatians, Nigerians, Australians etc.

Fans from countries that didn’t qualify were also there. I met a sports official from Pakistan and a woman from India who came to Volgograd to watch the match between Nigeria and Iceland. I had earlier met a Qatar based Sudanese who came Russia to watch the match. After the final match of the day between Argentina and Croatia, I went out for a meal with three Nigerian fans ( The Oke brothers and Aliyu)based in London and Kazakhstan.

The Iceland fans outnumbered the Nigerian fans in Volgograd and they were quite optimistic that they would prevail against us having played a draw with highly rated Argentina, compared to Nigeria’s poor performance against Croatia a few days earlier. Some Iceland fans hedged their bets telling us that the heat will work in the Super Eagles favour.

The next day 22 June 2018 was match day. At noon, I headed to the Fan Zone and met some Russian fans and took pictures with them. Many of them were keen on knowing what I felt about their country. There was great sportsmanship among the fans. The Iceland fans wished us best of luck and vice versa.

Around 3 pm, I headed to the Volgograd Stadium for the match. In the stadium, the Nigerian fans were outnumbered by the Iceland fans who made their voices heard. The Iceland fans did the Viking hand clap. The clap was however interrupted when the Super Eagles stepped up the gear and man of the match, Ahmed Musa scored two stunning goals to silence the Icelandic fans and allow the Nigerians fans to take over the Viking hand clap.

After the match, the fans headed back to the Fan Fest singing along the way.

When we got to the Fan Fest, we were the rave of the moment. People were shouting “NIGERIA NIGERIA” as we walked along streets and took pictures with us. Although we found it tiring, we soaked up our five minutes of fame. I then understood what it meant to be a celebrity with fans running after you and asking for selfies with every step you take. Next stop St. Petersburg.

With Nigeria’s victory over Iceland, we leapt from the bottom of the group to second place. The match against Argentina at St. Petersburg took an added importance. We only needed a draw against Argentina to qualify for the knockout stages, while Argentina had to win to scale through. I left Volgograd on 23 June 2018 and arrived at St Petersburg around 12:35 am the following day. At 3 am when I woke up from my sleep, looked out the window and noticed the day was bright. I was later informed that during the summer there are only two hours of darkness between 12 midnight and 2 am.

With St. Petersburg being a much larger city than Volgograd, it obviously had more fans. Despite the city size, it must have been clear to every resident and visitor that there was an invasion of Argentine fans. On the eve of the match, I went to the St. Petersburg fan zone to watch some of the matches on the screen. The award for the most vocal fans must have gone to the Argentine fans. Even though Argentina was not playing, their fans took over the place singing, shouting, taking their shirts off and waving it. They hoisted a Messi look-alike on someone’s shoulder and chanted “Messi Messi Messi.” As they sang, the other fans stood aside to watch them in amusement. After the closure of the Fan Zone, the fans took their celebration to the streets singing:

Vamos Argentina
Sabes que yo te quiero
Hoy hay que ganar y ser primero
Esta hinchada loca, dejo todo por la copa
La que tiene a Messi y Maradona

Some of the Latin American fans from Mexico, Brazil and Colombia came up to me saying they hoped Nigeria would beat Argentina. The Brazilian’s greeted the Argentines shout of Messi with “ Messi Caio Messi Caio” to the annoyance of the Argentines.

The Nigerian football jersey was the most treasured item at St Petersburg. I was stopped by fans from different countries who inspected the jersey. The Argentines particularly fell in love with the jersey. Many fans wanted to exchange their jersey with mine even before the match. One fan brought two Argentina jerseys, which he offered to exchange with my Nigerian jacket. I declined. On the morning of the match, I went sightseeing and when I got to the Church of the Spilled Blood, I met Obi — the self-declared “Super Eagles Prophet” who had accurately predicted the Nigeria vs Iceland scoreline before the match. He was there to say a prayer before the match. Later in the day, I went to the amazing St. Petersburg stadium to watch the match. Argentina went ahead in the first half with a Lionel Messi goal and Nigeria equalised at the beginning of the second half via a penalty. We were 4 minutes away from kicking Argentina out of the competition before a Marcos Rojo strike sealed our fate. After the final whistle, the Argentine fans were ecstatic and celebrated as if they had won the World Cup.

I eventually exchanged one of my Nigerian tops with a Lionel Messi replica jersey.

The day after the Nigeria vs Argentina match, the Brazil and Serbia match was shown on the Big Screen at the Fan Fest. After Brazil won, the Brazilian fans began singing in one corner of the zone, then the Mexican supporters took over another section of the Fan Zone, the Argentines took their section, followed by the Tunisians and even the Algerians fans (though Algeria did not qualify) took their own zone. All the fans from different countries joined them and as we left the Fan Fest, the Samba drums came out and the fans danced on the streets.

In summary, I had a great time in Russia. Contrary to what I expected, the Russians I came across were friendly. Despite the language barrier, many of them used the Google translate app on their smartphones to communicate. I once took a taxi and when I left, the Russian driver gave me a commemorative World Cup coin as a gift , while another Russian cab driver played Dr. Alban’s music when he learnt that I came from the same country as the singer. A woman gave me a fridge magnet. Prior to going to Russia, I was expecting to see people with horns and tails carrying a devil’s knife fork. I think I had read too much into the Cold War propaganda going on between the West and Russia. Sometimes in the West, we are programmed to believe that in countries like Russia, racism is the rule and not the exception, while in the West, racism is projected as the exception and not the rule. I am sure that Russia has its fair share of racists and hooligans, just like those I have encountered in the West. We should be conscious of what the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls — the Danger of a single story. Getting a 360-degree perspective puts things into context.

The World Cup was a unique experience for me. I have attended many global spectacles like the Olympics, the World Athletics Championship and the Grand Slam tennis tournaments. Without a doubt, nothing compares to the FIFA World Cup. Witnessing this year’s tournament made me appreciate why it is called the World Cup. For a whole month, the world stood still as the tournament took place. Presidents, Kings and Heads of State make time out of their busy schedule to rally behind their team. When a goal is scored, somewhere in the world, millions of people jump for joy. The World Cup is also a celebration of our diversity and the rainbow of nationalities present in Russia was plain to see.

The competition is nationalistic and global at the same time. Prior to going to Russia, I couldn’t understand why some players cried when singing their national anthems, but I heard the Nigerian national anthem played at the St Petersburg stadium, it then made sense. One lesson I learnt from my World Cup experience is that it is politics and politicians that often divide us. We have more in common that unites us than decides us. The Jogo Bonito that took place in Russia was a classic example.

From Russia With Love

Ahmed Sule, CFA

@Alatenumo.

Writer and social critic