THE quality of football played at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia was great, but it was the country that was the big surprise for Allan Lewis, managing director, JN Fund Managers.
This hardcore football fan, Premier League administrator and sometime player, who has been attending World Cup competitions since 1990, says that his view of Russia was radically transformed since attending the FIFA event.
“I visited the country once before, for two days, and was indifferent about returning,” he said. “The impression I had of Russia was in hindsight, largely informed by the history I had read, and of course the media.”
As the final national team qualification round approached in January, and despite many of his friends indicating that they would not be going to the event, his wife Eva, who doesn’t particularly like flying, encouraged him to consider going because she understood how much he loved the sport, no matter where it was played.
“The decisive point came when my brother Michael said he was interested in attending. I saw that as an opportunity for us to rekindle the spirit of Italia ’90 when we attended together with two other ‘bredrin’. Once Michael indicated he would make the trip that sealed it for me. I made the decision to go.”
No visa was required for those with a passport, match tickets and a Fan ID card, which was available online. The Fan ID card cost approximately US$10. It was required to enter stadiums, and also provided access to free subway transportation on match days, as well as free inter-city train travel.
The global football fiesta took place in Russia June 14 to July 15, and Lewis and his brother decided on a 10-day stay during the earlier stage of the competition. They opted to travel to Kazan, Moscow and St Petersburg, where key matches would be played.
“In the knockout stage there were daily matches and you could get to see the best teams play with ticket prices of around US$100 each,” he explained. “However, towards the end of the competition matches were less frequent and ticket prices climbed to around US$1,000 per match.
“Getting to Russia was simple and the flight there was not extra long,” he pointed out. “Then we got our surprise.
“Central Moscow is akin to Times Square in New York, with similar bright lights and tall buildings. The only difference is the Cyrillic lettering of their street signs which we could not read. But apart from the different alphabet we could have been in any major city.”
“Russia was an eye-opener and the complete opposite of what I expected,” he said. “People were very welcoming and seemed just as warm and fun loving as we are.”
He added: “One of the incredible interactions we had was with a fellow in his 30s named Vova who told us that he loves the Ska and that every Saturday he listens to Jamaican music from the 1960s, and he actually knew more about Ska than I did. Older Russians I met knew little about Jamaica, but members of the younger generation are far more cosmopolitan.”
The biggest difference between his Russia experience and that of other World Cups was the level of security he encountered.
“World Cup security has increased over the years, but the Russians took it to a different level,” he explained. “There were three checkpoints equipped with metal detectors to get into each stadium, where your credentials were checked and you could be searched.
“I have not been to any country where the physical security was so in your face. To enter any subway or public building you were checked by security, and we were told that the security presence had actually been toned down for the World Cup!”
That security included the requirement of a passport to travel between cities.
“I knew one World Cup visitor who didn’t have his passport who tried to access a train from Moscow to St Petersburg,” he stated. “He was not allowed to leave the city without getting it.”
With that massive security presence, he said they felt safe.
“As for the quality of the football displayed, it was the best I have seen in some time,” Lewis declared. “There was drama in Kazan when Argentina and Brazil lost; and, of course, the disappointment when Germany departed; but the host nation’s engagement is crucial, and in Russia clearly football shares the spotlight with other sports.”
Football is about far more than the technical quality of the play, as emotions affect the appreciation of the performance, he explained.
“The most enjoyable World Cup for me was in Brazil back in 2014, with their all-encompassing national football culture, but few things can compare with the emotional high I got in France during World Cup 1998 in that first game with Croatia when the Jamaican team equalised at half-time,” he said. “Now that, for a Jamaican football fan, was truly special.”
This content was originally published here.