* It’s a brilliant game played at a breathless pace. Russia’s joy afterwards is summed up by the journalist who fawns all over their coach
Our roving reporter watches Portugal v Spain in the company of a giant polar bear in Kazan and accompanies Peru’s party-hearty hordes to the World Cup’s easternmost city
It says a lot for the difference between fear-stoked preconceptions and the reality of spending a bit of time in a Russian city that I am sad to be leaving Kazan, with its beautiful kremlin by the river, easygoing atmosphere and the memory of watching Portugal v Spain in the stupendously named Snob Lounge with someone dancing in a giant polar bear costume.
Kazan is drenched in the friendliness the World Cup conjures up. The locals, particularly the youngsters, enjoy hosting and meeting new people. Equally, the travellers revel in being here. For a city like this to have such an influx of tourists from so many different countries has broadened horizons.
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Monday: St Petersburg
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is the place for a classic spot of World Cup people-watching. The constant greetings between strangers from diverse clans within the World Cup fellowship creates an infectious mood. Here’s an example. Egypt: “Hello Mexico can we have a photo?” Mexico: “Sure. Take my sombrero.” Egypt: “Well done against Germany.” Mexico: “Thanks. Good luck against Russia.” Then everyone shakes hands and grins at the loveliness of it all. It is easy to kid yourself at times like this that football just might be able to pull off world peace.
Tuesday: St Petersburg
Johnny Chávez from Costa Rica introduces himself at breakfast. It turns out that as well as being a fan of the Beatles and Peter Shilton, he is the manager of Santos de Guápiles, who finished fourth in the Costa Rican top flight last season. All of football wants to be here. In the afternoon a biblical storm spills forth over the St Petersburg Stadium just as the fans are making the long trek from the station towards Russia v Egypt. Getting drenched doesn’t dampen spirits, however, and the atmosphere crackles as the host nation come up against the returning Mo Salah.
It’s a brilliant game played at a breathless pace. Russia’s joy afterwards is summed up by the journalist who fawns all over their coach, Stanislav Cherchesov, by announcing: “You are the king! We love you!” Piercing line of questioning, there.
Meanwhile, the opening line from an Egyptian to their coach is tonally rather different, rude enough to refer to the manager to his face in the third person: “Is it fair to keep Héctor Cúper, who is a failure?” Ooof. There is evidently more than one impossible job out there.
The No 10 bus advertises a football‑free zone, promising “shopping, food and pleasures”. This seems ridiculous the morning after Russia qualify for the knockout phase in an atmosphere of unbridled euphoria. But taxi driver Sergey likes ice hockey and turns up his nose. “With football I am sleeping,” he laments.
Nearly everyone on the flight to Ekaterinburg is from Peru and they get on the plane and immediately conk out – a sure sign they have been having a hell of a party already.
Out in the Urals, with its vast buildings and multi-lane streets (sometimes the green light at pedestrian crossings give you just enough time to pelt across at Kylian Mbappé pace), Ekat is another place to explore when they wake up.
The vast numbers of touring Latin Americans have brought a notable flavour to this tournament and they easily outnumber the European visitors. For some reason, the further the journey, the greater the incentive. There are Peruvians everywhere. In the national anthem stakes not much beats La Marseillaise but it is spine-tingling to hear the Himno Nacional Del Perúbelted out by something like 25,000 so far from home.
Because of the time zones in Russia, the big game that follows – Argentina v Croatia – takes place on Thursday in Nizhny, but in Ekaterinburg, 1,400km east, it is already Friday. We arrive at a late-night eaterie with TVs and the waiter is so stunned and distracted by Argentina’s collapse he briefly gives up trying to take our order. Later, a visit to the cemetery on the edge of town brings a moment of reflection. A representative from the British consulate is one of the dignitaries at a deeply moving ceremony at the Shirokorechenskoe cemetery to mark the anniversary of the Nazi invasion. The Soviet Union lost about 26 million people in the second world war.
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The sun has finally come out. With fewer Japanese or Senegalese expected for tomorrow’s match, the vibe is very much locals doing their weekend thing. Kids are playing in the fountain by the opera house, lovers stroll by the river, one man is fishing, toddlers build sandcastles in the pit outside the Yeltsin centre. It’s bike rides and scooters, ice cream and candy floss, and for the first day since arriving in Russia it feels like a city where everything isn’t being run through the World Cup filter. And then a bunch of Peruvians appear, resplendent in their gorgeously sashed kit, and all is right with the world again.
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