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World Cup Fans Conquer Russia

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How to fathom the phenomenon of ‘fandom’? Certainly it is one of the most familiar, most recognisable, and common, of personality traits – yet oddly, one of the least analysed personality traits.

We all have a tendency towards being a ‘fan’ of something or other. It is a near-universal inclination evident in everyone from tech titans to favela-dwelling street kids. Yet that doesn’t make this thing called fandom any easier to comprehend.

Becoming a fan of the right thing, at the right time, can be a liberating gateway to an array of regular natural highs, and an excuse for completely out-of-character behaviour. But it can lead to frustration and a pain that only eases when you abandon hope.

There are genuine physiological and mental health benefits, and even employment opportunities in fandom, even if it defies rational explanation. Fandom may define a person’s life: ‘He was a fine father, a good friend, and as everyone knows, a passionate Waterford hurling fan all his life,’ it might be said.

Nick Hornby always pops to mind whenever I consider the topic (as I do more than is good for me). Like most struggling writers, Nick had been tipping along for years, when a lightbulb switched in his head. He dropped his Dostoevsky-lite pretentions, and tapped directly into his Arsenal FC obsession. He came up with the novel Fever Pitch (1992).

He followed this up with another global bestseller High Fidelity (1995) – a novel built entirely around musical obsession, and the butterfly effect it can have on a life. The success of both books lies in their unique, and accessible, capacity to get under the skin of fanatical fandom.

Hornby’s is the simplistic, embedded fandom that most of us get sucked into at some point in life. There is none of that nauseating need ‘finally to meet my hero’ – or fulfilment of a deep quest to reach ‘the destination of a lifelong journey.’   No, none of that horseshit, Nick Hornby’s global bestsellers are simply about the reality of being a fan.

One of the defining features of fandom, as Hornby explained, is that pleasure of reading newspaper reports after a favourable result, and knowing that friends and family are reading the same report and thinking of you. But my word there are many more aspects.

II – From Russia with Love

As I write I am travelling from Moscow to St. Petersburg on day seven of the 2018 World Cup, the biggest sporting event on the planet, by any metric. It really is something to behold.

The host nation is Mother Russia, and in the midst of a toxic sameness afflicting an increasingly globalized world, this place remains, unmistakably, Russia, an intoxicating brew which hits you as soon as you arrive.

Or at least that is how it was before this. As with anywhere, the World Cup month is an entirely different beast and – whether you really believe it or not – this month of madness every four years is still all about Football and Fans. Nothing else. To battle against that reality would be a fruitless endeavour.

Even the legendarily terrifying Russian authorities have succumbed to World Cup madness. To such an extent that the normally reserved Russian people have followed suit.

Y’see, just  like fandom, the World Cup itself is a bizarre and inexplicable thing. It temporarily requires even the most autocratic and despotic regimes to drop tools and play nice. But it ain’t some well-meaning peace initiative organised by the UN. It is a deeply corporate enterprise – the colossal plaything of an openly corrupt and corporate governing body named FIFA.

To be given the right to host the event by the Swiss-based sportocrats, Russia has had to commit to the biggest societal and behavioural shifts since the fall of Communism, and by Jove it is running smoothly.

Napoleon may have made it to Moscow before a ruinous retreat, and Hitler came close too, but only FIFA and Football fans have found the ingredients to the secret sauce required to tame the Russian Bear – albeit temporarily.

III – The World Cup in Unison

So here we all are now. Hundreds of thousands of the most colourful and diverse visiting fans, mixing delightfully with millions of ethnically-diverse Russians. While the spell lasts, it is bizarre and wonderful.

Everything is choreographed to within an inch of its life, but nothing is familiar. To anyone. In normal times most people enjoy the chance to show wide-eyed visitors around their homelands, taking pride as they see the place for themselves through fresh sets of eyes.

But not this time. The World Cup is entirely its own domain – familiar to nobody – a surreal pop-up-football-country and unique cultural mix built entirely around the unlikeliest blend of fans in full expression.

Everything is being made up as it goes along, and to this writer it is a joyous space to inhabit temporarily (in spite of the best efforts of the English fans). I believe everyone should make this kind of pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime.

This really is unchartered territory for all of us – even seasoned fans such as myself attending the sixth World Cup, who are brief residents of World Cup Fantasy Land.

Everyone – from the dourest cop, to the openly gay charmer who cut my hair, is on their very best behaviour for the month.

The diplomatic top brass in all the foreign embassies are on high alert too, and stocked with temporary crisis staff. Legions of PR gurus focus on protecting each country’s reputation from a potential humiliation in front of a watching world.

For instance yesterday a group of Columbians were caught sneaking alcohol into a stadium concealed in a pair of binoculars. This became a huge incident – a national embarrassment – requiring ministerial-level apologies to the Russian authorities. And that’s from a country that allowed Pablo Escobar run riot for decades, and one of whose players was shot for missing a penalty after USA 1994.

Even a train journey during the World Cup is an uplifting experience. Reportedly, all Russian train conductors have been compelled to attend training exercises in ‘pleasantries and tolerance’, and the country’s vast rail network is free-of-charge for any fan with a match ticket.

IV – Fiesta Time

Extravagant hospitality is normal at World Cups – national stereotypes go out the window – but this visiting horde of fans seem on better behaviour than usual.

My apartment until mid-July is in a leafy, well-to-do corner of Moscow called Sokolniki – a sleepy neighbourhood with playgrounds, and parks aplenty. However, an entire block in this normally placid area has been taken over by the hugely charismatic and enigmatic fans of Senegal.

Masses of wildly-enthused, tall and athletic-looking Africans are crammed into one building, spilling out in groups to dance and sing loudly on the street in support of ‘The Lions’ of Senegal, while festooning the locality with their flags.

Honestly, it’s Fantastic. The energy, the vibrant colours, the pumping music, the tribal moves – all delivered with a World Cup-imbued civility and joy that the normally stiff locals are warming to. It is brilliant and contagious.

And that is one single building – just one set of visiting fans. There are thousands of other fervent groups spread right across the enormous country for the month. Even the usually stiff and well-groomed Scandinavians and Germans are going batshit crazy.

And then there is the remarkable juxtaposition of fans gatherings in iconic places like Red Square, Nikolskaya Street, and outside the Bolshoi theatre.  A wild and widespread array of colour and noise has caught all of Russia off guard, and foreigners already living here are giddy at the sight of their normally reticent neighbours smiling and casually chatting to strangers.

Even the over-organised and branded FIFA ‘Fanzones’ have a lovely vibe to them, mostly down to one simple fact: these are the places where you will find the South Americans.

Their fans raise so many questions. Even after a week of asking around, I have found nobody who can explain how so many South American fans have managed to make it to Russia. How in god’s name have they been able to afford the trip when most of these countries are falling apart economically, while so many Western Europeans have ‘sensibly’ skipped it?

Where are all these South Americans living, eating and sleeping while they are here, and how the hell did the Peruvians manage to carry their hundreds of street-long flags and blow-up Llamas?  Imagine the excess baggage costs alone!

What a thing Fandom is, eh? It might be dismissed as just a curious personality trait, but as the first world gets ever blander, with toxic sameness delivered via massive global brands like Apple, Facebook and Nike – I see fandom as an important way of keeping human life interesting on planet Earth.

In this time of multiple global tensions and unreported traumas, the World Cup in Russia is arguably the most hopeful place to be in the world – now who could have guessed that?

Russia might well go back to being the stiff scary place of yore, but after this experience there will certainly be a residual warmth towards Russia felt by fans who have been caught off guard by how welcoming it has been. And the effect on Russians could be the same. That’s the brilliance of a World Cup.

*******

‘Ahhh but Ed… How can you praise an event hosted in a place with a reputation for x, y and z …?’, I was repeatedly asked by well-meaning liberal mates before leaving for Russia.

They have a point, but they don’t get it. The host country is merely a vessel for this event to bloom, a landscape where a pop-up utopia flourishes regardless of everyday norms. In fact, the more damaged a country is, the greater the benefit of a mass influx of World Cup fans.

So sod the haters and the cynics. With a fortnight to go in Russia 2018, I am already plotting how to get to the next one in 2022, due to be hosted in the utterly-illogical FIFA choice of Qatar. There you will find the full menu of human rights abuses; and strict public alcohol bans, and female repression, and dark laws against homosexuality.

But I will still go to Qatar, along with hundreds of thousands of fans, because I get it. I have seen at first-hand how transformative a month of fan-delivered warmth can be – and will enjoy watching Qataris melt in different ways when the hordes descend, and the World Cup fiesta takes over.

The legacy of an unstoppable force meeting an objectionable object is not easy to quantify, but I would defy any human with a soul to come to this event and not be moved to appreciate the joys of life as a football fan.;

My train has arrived in St. Peterburg. A Costa Rican has already invited me to/ visit his solar farm over an 11am beer. Another one has offered to help carry my equipment. Brazil kick off their second match in a space-aged stadium in the centre of the most beautiful city in Europe. If you can’t be a fan of this experience, then I pity you.

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