Russians out to prove they are 'worthy' World Cup hosts
Despite fears of violence, soccer’s ultimate showcase is off to a good start
ST. PETERBURG, Russia — Fears of doomsday scenarios in Russia kept many at home.
After the samba flow of Rio beaches where Caipirinhas were the liquid diet four years ago, we come to Russia curious if we will be rubbernecking carnage or, in fact, a part of it.
So far so good.
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With seats for the World Cup opener on the market for $17,000 or VIP seats at $35,000 to see two mediocre squads — Russia and Saudi Arabia — kick off the 64-match event, the hype lived up beyond expectation as the Russians romped to a 5-0 victory.
It was arguably the greatest opening match victory in World Cup history.
On the eve prior to the slaughter, Russian coach Stanislav Cherchesov said, "half the country will wake up and know there is a World Cup playing. It takes a long time to get the car going, but once we step on the pedal, you will see we will be flying."
Indeed. They will find out.
Fans were belting out Russ-shi-aaaaa all night long.
As the visitors in a country known in the media for violence and abuse, it is a welcome sight to see the host nation delighted. In fact, the Russians have been very hospitable. They want to help us. We were warned that they would be gruff, dour, grouchy and stone-faced. Maybe they are, but not so far. They are warm. We are told it is safe. The bags we clutched are more damaged by our grip than our surrounding. Conceivably, their thugs took a vacation.
"We want to show we are worthy," said Cherchesov. "Go around and you will see we are a kind and friendly people."
Muskovites stop to talk to us. They are curious. On the famous Nikolskaya street close to the Kremlin, where glistening Christmas-style lights seem to hang from the sky, thousands of Argentinian, Saudi and Peruvian fans belt songs and bounce through the night without incident.
Perhaps they are just tolerating us. Perhaps it's just the honeymoon stage.
FIFA hopes for the same in the stands. There is a new rule now that the referees will have the power to abandon a game in cases of persistent discrimination in the crowd. Russia is hoping to crack down on past extremes where racial and homophobic slurs have been the norm.
So much so, that the English squad has been trained to endure taunts and black players such as Ashley Young are leaving their families at home. The squad, which boasts 11 black, Asian and ethnic minorities, posed for a photograph holding cards which read "Show racism the red card," in support of the anti-racism campaign.
Supporters were also forced to create fan IDs as entry visas into Russia and matches. As a result, FIFA weeded out hundreds of known hostile troublemakers from the stadiums.
But racism and homophobia is often invisible. Two Saudi fans walking down the street had a car pull up with men howling at them in Russian. The Saudis looked discouraged and confused, their postures shrunk.
Gay rights activist Peter Tatchell tried a one-man protest at Red Square against the torture of gays in Chechnya. He was tossed in jail.
Russian President Vladimir Putin described Russia as an "open and fair country" pre kick-off in a speech to 78,011 at Luzhniki Stadium. They chanted Vladimir! Vladimir!
He also attended the World Cup Gala Concert at the Red Square on the eve of the opening match. With a backdrop of the Kremlin and iconic Russian architecture, classical and opera stars including Anna Netrebko, Plácido Domingo, Denis Matsuev and Valery Gergiev glorified the cool air with voices that seemed unworldly. The narrator spoke of their talents emulating the great players whose abilities seem miraculous and out of body.
We are reminded why we tune in to the World Cup.
We are excited to witness greatness and the spectrum of the human spirit in action.
All politics aside, and colour, race or sexual orientations, the impact of the World Cup goes beyond the gathering of 32 nations that beat out the rest. It is about the game we love and the dramas that will unfold. Like every sporting event that garners years of media scrutiny, fear mongering and pessimism, we need the athletes to take us into a fantasy and mystery beyond our daily routine. We will be lifted, crushed, mesmerized and cursed by their heroics, personalities, flounders and dreams realized.
The whistle has blown. The game is on.
More importantly, the Russians now have a W and we can cross our fingers their mood will remain friendly.
Carrie Serwetnyk, the first female inductee to the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame, is the director of Equal Play, a non-profit group working for girls on and off the field. She is also the director of Free Kick Soccer Leagues. She has attended eight men's World Cups since Italia 1990.