Belfast Telegraph

Comment: Russian hospitality helped make World Cup the greatest of modern era

By Adrian Rutherford

On the Aeroexpress to Moscow's Domodedovo airport last night, shortly after France had lifted the World Cup, thoughts drifted back to a wet November night eight months ago.

The scene is a hotel lobby in Basel, following Northern Ireland's play-off against Switzerland. A 0-0 draw has just ended our qualification hopes.

As the realisation sets in, a group of fans begin searching for consolation amid the heartache.

It wouldn't have been enjoyable anyway, they said. Not like the Euros. Russia is not France.

Such perceptions were perhaps understandable, and they were shared widely before the tournament.

Fears over racism, hooliganism and diplomatic spats overshadowed the build-up like never before.

Yet, over the last month, the reality has been very different.

Russia 2018 opened the window on a country rich in culture and history, and people who were unfailingly kind and friendly.

It has been a wonderful showcase for a tournament which, in sporting terms alone, ranks as the greatest of the modern era.

From the eve of the opening match, when Spain sacked their coach, to yesterday's finale, and the images of the triumphant French players, clutching flags, celebrating wildly, it has been pure theatre.

Our memories of Russia 2018 will be framed by Cristiano Ronaldo hitting a hat-trick against Spain and Lionel Messi's wonderful goal against Nigeria.

We will recall Kylian Mbappe's individual brilliance against Argentina and Belgium's comeback against Japan.

This was the tournament of surprises - Russia's rise, the Germans' fall.

For a while England thought football was coming home - then they realised they would be coming home instead.

And yesterday a fitting finale, played amid a thunderstorm, which brought the highest goal tally in a final for 52 years.

Games are often decided by acts of genius, but this World Cup was defined by the colour and spectacle of the people.

In Moscow they gathered in Red Square, where nuclear missile parades took place in the 1980s, but for the last month home to one big party.

Yesterday, in the early morning heat, Croatian and French fans grouped together for photographs, sharing hugs, memories and stories.

The same feel-good factor has flowed through other host cities, from Kaliningrad in the west to Ekaterinburg, the most easterly stop-off.

A tournament in Russia naturally involved lots of travelling.

It meant sleeper trains and 4am flights and taxi journeys through congested cities. The Westlink at rush hour has nothing on Moscow at midnight.

Moscow also brought metro-hopping in a network of beautiful stations - one had its own tour guide - with their marble columns and never-ending escalators.

On the journey supporters bonded, finding commonality around football, travel tales and memories that will last a lifetime.

Two moments stand out for me.

The first was trying to leave the Luzhniki Stadium after the Germany v Mexico match on the first weekend.

A couple of hours after the full-time whistle, the nearby Sportivnaya metro station was still impassable.

Hundreds of Mexican fans, celebrating after an unexpected but deserved 1-0 win, were celebrating on the platform.

On each side, trains departed empty as supporters opted to party rather than go home.

The second was in Samara, the day before England played Sweden.

I took a wrong turn looking for my hotel and, unable to find a taxi, called at a shop for help.

A woman who spoke only Russian summoned an English-speaking colleague, who rang two of his friends. They drove me to the door, making sure I was at the right place and knew my whereabouts.

When I tried to pay for the 15-minute journey, they refused to accept anything. Such stories were commonplace.

Everyone leaving Russia returns home with their own memories.

Amid the love-in of the last month, it has been easy to forget how this tournament began with such scepticism.

And a memorable World Cup should not gloss over the serious concerns that linger about democracy, human rights and freedom of speech.

Yet for four wonderful weeks we saw Russia at its best - a beautiful country that was welcoming and charming.

This was so much more than a month-long festival of goals and glory.

Eight months on from that night in Basel, it has become clear we'd have loved it.

Belfast Telegraph

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