Belfast Telegraph

No fear or loathing, Russia's just a land of contradictions

By Adrian Rutherford

The Fifa merchandise store near the entrance to the Luzhniki Stadium was doing brisk business yesterday.

Under the gaze of a statue of Lenin, 100 rouble notes were handed over by the bundle for a wide range of bland, overpriced tat.

Half and half scarves? That'll be 2,000 roubles (around £25).

It is tempting to wonder what the father of communism, peering down on it all, would make of such naked capitalism.

But then, as anyone arriving in Russia in recent days is fast discovering, this is a land of contradiction.

Five days here has challenged everything you thought you knew about the place.

The countdown to the 2018 World Cup was greeted with fear and loathing - much of it, it now seems, grossly ill-informed.

This has been a tournament of surprises off the field as much as on it.

In Red Square yesterday, crowds of fans mingled in the hot morning sunshine. Mexicans in sombreros mixed cheerily with Germans dressed patriotically in black, red and gold.

Spend 10 minutes walking through central Moscow in recent days and you are met with a kaleidoscope of colour.

A quick shirt count suggests supporters from South America have travelled in greatest numbers.

Jerseys from Peru, Argentina and Colombia stand out in the crowds that gather daily in front of St Basil's Cathedral, a favourite spot for selfies.

Here, and in the other host cities, the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly. Walking the streets, you feel not just safe, but welcome.

The infrastructure has worked well, which isn't always the case.

Any Ireland rugby fan will wince at the memories of queuing for hours for a train in Cardiff after their opening 2015 World Cup fixture.

A trip to St Petersburg on Friday - a nine hour journey - was made effortlessly via sleeper trains that were comfortable, clean and free for all fans.

Travel within the cities is also complimentary, with Moscow's impressive - and elegant - metro system shuffling supporters around this vast city in minutes.

Signs translated into English make navigating from place to place easier than feared.

More than £3billion has been pumped into building new stadia, including the £615million St Petersburg Stadium, which resembles a spaceship.

The Spartak arena, where Argentina drew with Iceland on Saturday, has its own metro station and statue of Spartacus.

Of course the football has helped.

Russia's 5-0 opening day win over Saudi Arabia did much to lift the pessimistic mood among the home nation.

The 3-3 draw between Iberian neighbours Spain and Portugal needs no commentary.

Iran v Morocco, an ordinary fixture which produced some even more ordinary football, was brought alive by the frenzied atmosphere of 60,000 passionate fans.

The sight of Iranians celebrating joyously after a 95th minute winner has become its defining image.

So all is well. Or at least that is how it seems.

Because the nagging suspicion is that, scratch the surface a little, or move outside the host cities with their shiny stadiums and corporate branding, and you will find the reality is somewhat different.

A colleague who visited a year ago for the Confederations Cup tells how a day-trip out of Moscow to several remote villages uncovered scenes of poverty, crumbling roads and decades-old infrastructure.

Volgograd, where England play tonight, is the poorest of the 11 host cities.

The local economy is struggling. For those in employment, the average monthly salary is around £220.

The Volgograd Stadium, which will host just four group stage matches, cost £280m. Locals fear it will become a white elephant once the World Cup moves on.

The Red October steel plant has been shut for the duration of the tournament. Authorities don't want negative headlines about the plumes of smoke it churns out daily.

Relaxed visa rules for the World Cup have simplified the arrival process at Moscow's airports.

But others who have travelled here previously on UK ­passports describe more complex experiences at border control.

Yet for now these problems have been set to one side.

So far the experience for fans spilling into cities across this vast and contradictory land has been overwhelmingly positive.

The world is watching, and for the next month Russia is determined to put on a show.

Belfast Telegraph

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