Dr Wale Okediran with two games hostesses at the stadium
Dr Wale Okediran with two games hostesses at the stadium

A passage to Russia

In last week’s edition I narrated how I had, unknowingly, arrived in Russia on the Summer Solstice (also known as White Night) ‘The Longest Day of the Year’ with about 19 hours of sunshine, having received the inspiration to travel as a result of my love for Russian literature.

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I was also prodded on by some colleagues to have a first-hand experience of the 2018 World Cup that was being hosted by the largest country in the world. My other encounters follow.

As we filed into the stadium which had been filled to its maximum capacity of 44,190, we all made our way to our seats which had been inscribed on our tickets. 

After a series of official ceremonies, the football pitch was sprinkled with cold water, obviously to make it conducive for a good match.

However, despite the late hour, many of the football fans remained on the street of the famous Russian city with endless festivities of drumming, dancing and drinking. 

Not to be outdone, the Russians themselves abandoned their usual social restraint to approach foreign fans with broad smiles, with offers of help and local gastronomic tips. In this respect, I found the elderly Russian women more sympathetic to foreigners who usually found the language barrier a big challenge to cope with.

Since the long-awaited Nigeria/Argentina match was to take place in Saint Petersburg on June 26 by 5pm, it was inevitable that we should make our way back to the city. 

To St Petersburg

So it was, that we found our way back to St Petersburg from Moscow via the fast train arriving at the Moskovsky Train Station in the city in the evening of June 25, with the outside temperature now a sweltering 22oc. 

We spent the early part of the following day sightseeing in Saint Petersburg. One of the important places visited was the beautifully decorated Kazansky Cathedral where many Argentina fans who are Catholics were lighting candles and praying at the feet of saints obviously for success in their forthcoming encounter with Nigeria.

Earlier in the day, Tayo had told me of his premonition that Nigeria was going to lose the match based on the previous encounters between the two countries where Argentina had always won. It was his belief that the psychological feeling of inferiority on behalf of the Nigerian team anytime it met Argentina in football matches would always be a big challenge for the team.  I disagreed with him and predicted a Nigerian victory.

Moments later, on our way to the stadium, we passed the central part of the town where a television crew asked for my opinion on the forthcoming Nigeria/Argentina duel.   Again, I predicted a Nigerian victory. 

As we later moved towards the stadium, we chanced upon a crowd of football fans donning both the Nigerian and Argentina jerseys. Among the Argentina fans was a young man who spoke Hausa to me. He told me that he grew up in Katsina state where his father was a missionary doctor for many years.

In another corner were a knot of football fans without tickets who were haggling with some agents who were now selling tickets at the black market rate of $400 - $500 from the official rate of $120 - $200. 

As we were taking in the convivial scene and taking photographs with fans from both sides, an agitated Nigerian fan suddenly ran towards a truck full of Russian policemen as he frantically shouted that his ticket had been stolen on the train on his way to the stadium. He was sweating and very angry as he demanded to talk to a police man who could speak English. 

As Tayo predicted, Nigeria lost the match to Argentina. I was depressed all night and while Tayo and Dion later went out for dinner, I remained in our apartment brooding as I struggled through a ‘mournful’ dinner of bread and chicken stew.

Although the World Cup was just beginning with the commencement of the knockout stage, for me, Nigeria’s ouster pulled the wind out of the sail of the competition. I therefore watched the remaining matches with half-hearted devotion.

Good tournament 

To Russia’s credit, the tournament which only 10 per cent of people around the world had viewed positively a year earlier went very well. Prior to the competition, there were threats of boycott by some countries because of some political dissentions. 

In addition, there were fears of dangerous levels of hooliganism, while some people did not believe that the country’s transportation infrastructure could handle such a massive influx of people into the country. 

But to the surprise of everyone who expected these issues to boil over at some point, nothing of the sort happened.   

As a first-time visitor to Russia, the World Cup nullified the Russian stereotypes of a cold and hostile country. In its place, I encountered first-world infrastructure, impeccable planning and mostly friendly people, except for the glum looking members of the security forces.

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The Russians put their success story to years of planning for a government eager to improve Russia’s dire international image. 

Perhaps, a final testimony of the success of the tournament could be seen in the statement credited to the U.S. national security adviser, John Bolton, who on a recent visit to President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin said: “I look forward to learning how you handled the World Cup so successfully,” as the US top official referred to the fact that the U.S. would host the 2026 World Cup along with Mexico and Canada.

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