This summer, I went to the FIFA World Cup for the first time in my life. For a football mad person like myself, this is the dream. This is only my third World Cup, yet I was more excited for it than ever, spurred on by the fact that I would be spending a week in Russia for the 2018 edition.
On 18th April, my dad and I got confirmation that we were going to Russia, as FIFA approved our ticket applications. We bought tickets for two games- Serbia vs Switzerland and Spain vs Morocco. Both were in Kaliningrad, a small Russian exclave tucked in between Poland and Lithuania.
It was a fantastic opportunity for us, as Switzerland were playing there and it was far closer to us than the other host cities. Despite my excitement, everyone else seemed rather sceptical.
Everyone I told was either extremely surprised or slightly nervous. I was questioned a lot about why I was going to Russia, especially as the Skripal nerve agent attack was still unfolding. Those events in Salisbury had heightened tensions between the UK Government and the Kremlin to a new level, and it came at the worst time possible as Russia prepared to welcome millions upon millions of fans into their country.
Some people talked to me as if I was crazy. The British media did not help, who were so paranoid about it. Weekly warnings to England fans got to the point where some seemed to be trying to deter fans from going to Russia altogether. There is no denying that the media here in the UK were scared, and that is one of the last things you want to be seeing weeks before you jet off to the country of their fears.
As we landed in Kaliningrad Khrabovo Airport, I was accepting so many risks. I was accepting the risk of being racially abused, targeted, and discriminated and so much more. Russia is viewed as a dangerous, unknown place in the western world.
Being of mixed race heritage, my family were worried that I would be a victim of racial abuse. I had done my research on Russia, and I was aware of what I was getting myself into. However, my trip to Russia was far from what I expected.
Across my six days spent in Russia, I experienced no problems. I saw and encountered no homophobia, racism, xenophobia or any discrimination of that kind. I ventured around the small oblast without seeing a single political demonstration, which the UK Government warned its citizens to avoid.
In fact the only political statements I saw for my own eyes were from my fellow countrymen at the first game I attended. In their goal celebrations Granit Xhaka, Xherdan Shaqiri did the eagle hand celebration, referencing to their Albanian roots in protest to the Serbian oppression of their homeland. They were fined 10,000 francs (£8,000) avoiding a possible ban. Captain Stephan Lichtsteiner, who also did the celebration, was fined 5,000 francs (£4,000).
The people of Russia were lovely. Many were excited to see so many new faces, while others just simply didn’t get in your way. Apart from the occasional language barrier, we had no problems. Everyone was helpful, cheery and happy to host us.
There was always a friendly atmosphere, helped by people from all over the world gathering in the Central Square. I met and saw Swiss fans, Serbs, Spaniards, Moroccans; people from all over the world. That was one of my favourite parts of going to the World Cup.
Seeing people from all across the globe, and talking to them about their country. I was so excited to meet so many Swiss fans as well, which started as soon as we boarded our connecting flight to Kaliningrad. I felt so included being able to talk to fellow fans in a native language, and seeing so many felt great.
I won a competition with Hyundai to be in Russia and therefore we were assigned a city guide for our time there. She was from Kaliningrad, and told us a lot on our journey, including answering all of my questions. When I asked how people felt about the World Cup in her city, she replied “there is a lot of excitement here, it is a big deal for this part of Russia.”
This was also obvious by the fact that there was World Cup branding and advertising everywhere I looked. As soon as I landed in Russia I could see big posters of the mascot Zabivaka welcoming tourists, and on the drive alone from the airport to our hotel I could see banners everywhere.
However, not everyone was happy about it. “Some locals have booked their holidays for the weeks the World Cup is here in order to avoid all of the fans”, she explained. “There is a real buzz, but some people just want to stay away from it.”
It was a real festival-like atmosphere in Russia. Spending a week there broke all stereotypes I had of the country, and it was a real eye-opening experience. However, I know that this does not mean that it a perfect country. As the case is in all countries, Russia still has its problems, ranging from social to political factors.
My journey to Russia changed my opinion and view on the nation, but it has not blinded me from some of the sour truths that still do exist. I cannot be brainwashed by this tournament, but I can appreciate the country working hard to make this festival of football go perfectly. They worked to make it an enjoyable experience for everyone, and I could not be more thankful.
Vladimir Putin himself said, “Many stereotypes about Russia have been broken down. People have seen that Russia is a hospitable country and friendly to those who come to us. Largely it has been done by the effort of our football fans.” I did not think I would be saying this, but I completely agree with Mr Putin.
The saying ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ speaks for itself in this situation. Seeing Russia with my own eyes massively changed my perspective on it, and it gave me the best trip of my life.
Nischal, July 2018