Dedicated fans show genuine cup spirit

One diehard has been to two World Cups on a bicycle; others pay $1,200 for match ticket

The day started off cold and windy but, at Red Square, the heat was rising - not just from the ambient temperature but from the thousands of fans who thronged this iconic part of the Russian capital ahead of the World Cup's kick-off last week.

But Argentinian Maty Amaya was difficult to miss. There he was, standing by a building with his trusty bicycle - adorned with myriad flags - parked alongside him.

Amaya is 33, but looked at least 10 years older because of his beard; shaving being a relatively unimportant pursuit during the six-plus years spent traversing 37 countries and clocking up more than 80,000km on his bike before finally arriving in Russia.

For him, his time in Moscow is like being at a wedding - it is the occasion when he can marry his two great loves - football and cycling.

"The World Cup is my passion, cycling is my love," he told The Straits Times in halting English and via translation from other tourists.

"It is great to do both at the same time, and I can sleep with a smile."

Amaya left his home town of San Juan and his job of selling pharmaceuticals on April 5, 2012, to catch the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and decided to "get lost in the world" after that.

 This impromptu gathering is like a mini-United Nations of the football faithful; Standing beside his trusty bicycle festooned with several national flags, Argentinian Maty Amaya tells the story of his six-year journey on two whee
Clockwise, from top: This impromptu gathering is like a mini-United Nations of the football faithful (above); Standing beside his trusty bicycle festooned with several national flags, Argentinian Maty Amaya tells the story of his six-year journey on two wheels from his home town of San Juan. ST PHOTOS: DAVID LEE

 This impromptu gathering is like a mini-United Nations of the football faithful; Standing beside his trusty bicycle festooned with several national flags, Argentinian Maty Amaya tells the story of his six-year journey on two whee
This impromptu gathering is like a mini-United Nations of the football faithful; Standing beside his trusty bicycle festooned with several national flags, Argentinian Maty Amaya (above) tells the story of his six-year journey on two wheels from his home town of San Juan. ST PHOTOS: DAVID LEE

LIFE CYCLE

The World Cup is my passion, cycling is my love. It is great to do both at the same time, and I can sleep with a smile.

MATY AMAYA, football fan, on making his around-the-globe journey from Argentina to Russia.

He rode all over South America before heading to Central America, where he took a flight to cross the Atlantic Ocean from Panama to Spain.

He rattled off the countries since arriving in Europe: "Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Italy, Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and now Russia."

Surviving on €4 (S$6.30) or €5 a day, he earns "income" by giving away 4R photographs of his adventure for a free-will donation.

"I am blessed. I travel with 90kg and the only problem I have with my bike is the front brake," he said.

"I have met many good people who have given me a place to sleep and eat. I have two hands to barter with work and I don't need a lot of money."

Besides not having a lot of money, he did not have a ticket to any game before the World Cup started. But no matter, said the man who believes that "the impossible needs only a bit more effort"; he planned to experience the action and atmosphere at public screenings.

After all, the atmosphere at the various fan fests and outside the stadiums has been as lively as that inside them.

That is thanks to fans like the Peruvians, whose team have made it to the World Cup for the first time since 1982. From Moscow to Saransk, they have made their presence felt in their distinctive white jerseys with a diagonal red stripe and enthusiastic cheers.

Musician Miguel de la Mata, who led his compatriots in a noisy celebration at the Bar BQ Cafe near Red Square on June 12, said: "The World Cup means love for the whole country and it's one way we get together.

"It's not enough just to watch on TV, you've got to be here and we will sell the car or the house to get here if we don't have the money."

The World Cup does not belong only to those who have qualified either. The flags of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Venezuela have been spotted in the crowds, while Americans snapped up 86,710 tickets, the most from any nation, with China coming in at No. 8 (39,884).

About a million fans in total are expected to visit Russia for this World Cup and among them have been the Elvis and Santa impersonators from Kansas City, Missouri.

They were an attraction at the Germany-Mexico game, as well as Zhu Jing and Yu Fei from Hubei, who shelled out almost 6,000 yuan (S$1,260) each for tickets to the thrilling 3-3 draw between Portugal and Spain in Sochi.

Yu, a 25-year-old student, proved that while the World Cup is seemingly a tribal affair involving national teams, these fans' loyalties cross borders.

Speaking with flags of both countries painted on her face, she said: "It is so worth it because I got to see my favourite footballer, Cristiano Ronaldo, score three goals."

Even the stern security forces have been joining in this mammoth love fest. At the Spartak metro station after debutants Iceland had held two-time world champions Argentina to a 1-1 draw last Saturday, local officers were seen mimicking the famous Viking Thunderclap and asking two Iceland fans for a picture.

China's Yu added: "The atmosphere is great... even though we all come from different countries and cultures, we really feel like we are part of the same world here."

She has discovered what fans like us already know: The language of football is universal.

Maty Amaya talks about cycling to Russia: str.sg/ogdw

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2018, with the headline 'Dedicated fans show genuine cup spirit'. Print Edition | Subscribe