David Lee in Russia for the World Cup: Fans in Moscow speak the universal language of football

Peruvian fans gather in the Red Square in Moscow, Russia, on June 18, 2018.
Peruvian fans gather in the Red Square in Moscow, Russia, on June 18, 2018.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

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

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

Amaya is 33, but looked at least 10 years older with an unshaven look that has accumulated over six years as he traversed 37 countries and 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 an 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 hometown of San Juan and his job selling pharmaceutical medicine on April 5, 2012, to catch the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and decided to "get lost in the world" after that.

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, Holland, Germany, Austria, Italy, Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, 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 90 kilos 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 also 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 from 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, Turkenistan and Venezuela have been spotted in the crowds, while Americans snapped up 86,710 tickets, the most from visitors, with China coming in at No. 8 (39,884).

About one million fans are expected to visit Russia for this World Cup and among them have been the Elvis and Santa impersonators from Kansas City, Missouri, who were an attraction at the Germany-Mexico game, as well as Zhu Jing and Yu Fei from Hubei, who shelled out more almost RMB6,000 (S$1,260) each for tickets to Portugal and Spain's thrilling 3-3 draw 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 on Saturday, local officers were seen mimicking the famous Viking Thunderclap and asking two Iceland fans for a picture.

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

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