Football: Fans the true stars as World Cup 2018 kicks off

The opening ceremony of the Fifa World Cup was held at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium yesterday. The tournament was declared open by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The opening ceremony of the Fifa World Cup was held at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium yesterday. The tournament was declared open by Russian President Vladimir Putin.PHOTO: REUTERS

Waving flags and dressed in their national team jerseys, they bring colour and fun to the festivities

After days of anticipation, the action at the World Cup finally got under way with Russia settling the host nation's nerves by romping home to a 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia yesterday.

But the true stars of the show were the football fans, many of whom had trekked from all corners of the globe to congregate in the world's largest nation to celebrate The Beautiful Game.

With many sporting their national teams' jerseys, they reminded those present that this event - watched by some 3.2 billion people in 2014 - is truly the WORLD Cup.

At the city's Red Square, home of St Basil's Cathedral as well as the tomb of former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, flag-waving supporters of various nationalities and races thronged the iconic landmark, gathering as one just hours before the big kick-off.

Spaniard Martina Ibanez was in town for just one game and was enjoying a day trip before flying to Sochi for La Roja's opener against Portugal.

She told The Straits Times: "It is one game but it will be worth it because it is a big game and it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

"I am still trying to recover from the (shock) sacking of (coach) Julen Lopetegui, but this beautiful city and its warmth have helped me get over the heartbreak, and I hope our team can be professional and win."

Seven kilometres away at the modern Luzhniki Stadium, almost 100,000 fans, with or without tickets, gathered.

There were the usual touts who attempted to sell Category 3 tickets at US$900 (S$1,207) a piece, but it was a carnival affair throughout the 15-minute, 1.5km walk from the Sportivnaya metro station to the arena, with security forces providing assurance in the background.

The Mexicans wore their Azteca outfits, the Arabs came in thawbs, the Peruvians did not stop singing, while many other football fans came in their own creative costumes - including being dressed up as Russian stiltwalkers.

 

A Fifa spokesman told ST that outside of Russian residents, Americans bought the most tickets - 86,710.

The Brazilians (71,787), Colombians (64,231) and Chinese (39,884) were also in the top 10.

There had been concerns that the country would be less than welcoming of foreign tourists, but local volunteers were communicating in various languages and high-fiving people; one female Russian volunteer received an ovation for her command of Arabic.

Concerns over racism were also unfounded as Russians could be seen giving Africans warm welcomes and engaging in friendly conversations.

Nigerian Kenneth Anyiam told ST: "I have lived here for eight years and we have no problems getting along.

"I am sure the world will feel Russia's love this World Cup."

It is perhaps why Russian President Vladimir Putin, who enjoyed a rousing reception from the 78,000-strong crowd as he declared the tournament open, hailed the power of football and its "lasting humanistic value".

Russian Aleksandr Smirnov said: "The fact that we won is a great bonus. We won't be thinking we can win the World Cup, but this result gives us belief... that we can at least create history by qualifying for the next round as Team Russia.

"Most of us have never seen so many foreigners from so many different countries all at once, and we are happy to see them having a good time in our country."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 15, 2018, with the headline 'Fans the true stars as World Cup 2018 kicks off'. Print Edition | Subscribe