Few things in life can match the experience of watching a World Cup final live inside the stadium
A disastrous own goal; a controversial penalty decided by the video assistant referee (VAR); six goals, including three clinical strikes by three truly world-class footballers; cross-dressed Pussy Riot members streaking on the pitch against Russian administration; Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović’s magnanimity; Vladimir Putin’s umbrella; and the victory of football over racism. As much as the 2018 FIFA World Cup final between France and Croatia at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium inspired euphoric celebrations in Paris, it was a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle even for the neutral in the stadium.
My invitation to Russia eventuated at the behest of Budweiser, the official sponsor of the biggest sports event in the world. The invitees included a handful of global social media influencers, but a thumping majority comprised contest winners from over 50 countries across the planet’s six inhabitable continents. As a part of its ‘Light Up The FIFA World Cup’ campaign, Budweiser’s parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev provided tickets, four nights’ accommodation, round-trip flights, pre and post-game entertainment and transport to/from the stadium for the final game for all guests.
I was put up in the same room as the lone winner from India. The recently-graduated 23-year-old computer engineer Sachin Gowda had scratched coupons in exchange of more than 1,000 beer bottles to top his country’s leaderboard. “Around 40 of my hostelmates selflessly kept passing on scratch cards from their beer purchases for around two months. You had to input each scratch code on the Bud website and answer as many questions for more points.” The only one out of 1.3 billion Indians, no doubt, Gowda later came to be known as ‘the luckiest man in the world’ in one part of Moscow.
After a big party on the first night (ahead of three bigger ones to follow), we were divided into smaller groups for local walking tours the next morning. A part of my group was Austin Steller, a ‘stached coffee-machine servicer from California, USA. “There were two other winners before my mom. But both of them didn’t have passports, so she got to come here and thankfully chose me as her plus-one. It’s my first visit outside America and bloody hell it’s for the World Cup final,” we ambled towards the Teatralnaya Square.
“My dad took me to the 2006 finals in Germany, and I got him here,” Australia’s Max Power echoed a similar sentiment approaching the Bolshoi Theatre. He had won a social media contest Down Under and preferred the company of his father, who had once lived in England and watched matches in various stadiums that still play hosts for the Premier League.
Along with another Australian duo and two German couples, our eclectic mix of a walking tour group did as the Russians in its throbbing capital. Moscow is a melting pot for the country’s communist past and capitalist present. Radiating across 1,000-plus sq km from the Kremlin’s Red Square, it blends together Vladimir Ilich Lenin’s Mausoleum and many dreary five-story apartment buildings — from the era (50s to 60s) of Nikita Khrushchev’s rule — on the one hand, with the swanky cars, Western style supermarkets and a glitzy nightlife on the other.
Language might sometimes be a barrier, but you can easily follow directions (or use Google Maps) to catch a metro. Once through the ticket scanner, you descend down a couple of layers of the Earth’s crust (the Park Pobedi station is 84m below ground level; escalator is 126 meters long) into underground opulence. Moscow has some of the most beautiful metro stations in the world. The likes if Komsomolskaya, Red gates, Kropotkinskaya, Vorobyovy Gory and Mayakovskaya have been rated among must-see tourist attractions. In fact, one can even opt for paid tours to curate a personal experience of these works of art.
As is the case with many of Europe’s big capitals, the life of Muscovites also emanates from the banks of their big waterbody, the Moskva River. A walk down the Moskva, towards the nightclub later that night, introduced us to the Peter The Great Statue. Erected in 1997, it’s the eighth tallest statue in the world and comes straight out of a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. “I’ve been here for more than two weeks,” said South Africa’s Jodi Cash, who won back-to-back contests in his country. “I don’t know what I’ll do once this ends,” the ad-maker cum musician exclaimed. The sizeable African contingent consisted of DJ Fresh, and fellow Manchester United supporter Itumeleng Wesi, who of course would wear the red colours with me on Sunday.
A VIP area viewing of rapper Nas Jones’ gig at the nearby Gipsy Club was the highlight of that night, but it was a precursor to the big boat party along the river the next day. The mammoth BudBoat floating underneath multitudinous bridges was our stop for the third place game ahead of the big mundial showdown. It was surely not coming home for England as they were handed a 3-1 pasting by the promising Belgians. The boat was nonetheless turned into a sea of white by at least a dozen Three Lions’ shirts. Tom Junior, from Brighton, had bought a four-pack back home to be given the surprise of his life upon scratching the accompanying card. “We ran into Gary Lineker at a restaurant in Moscow the other day. Even he didn’t expect to England to come so far. It’s surely coming home next time!”
Despite going to bed post sunrise after a DJ Zedd gig that night, the entire Bud troop was fired up to paint the city red early on Sunday. The sound of Allez les Bleus rang in the Russian capital with the Croatian red and whites sprinkled hither and thither. The chorus only got louder in the Khamovniki District as we approached the Luzhniki confines, the columns of which were reverberating with the 79,000-strong fullhouse. Homage to the winner’s trophy in the adjacent Affiliates Village was the perfect prelude to climbing three levels en route stand C248 that opened up into a goosebumping, breathtaking window to the ground.
With Croatia in my heart and my new African friends fittingly seated next to me, I donned the red of Manchester – rallying for Paul Pogba to score (I’d made my neutral stance clear earlier in article). We all know what happened eventually. Not only did the talismanic United #6 put the ball in the back of the net, so did the electric 19-year old Kylian Mbappe — both members of the 67% non-white, 33% Muslim French squad.
Yes, the 2018 World Cup was painted red, white and blue by the end of it, but the victory reiterated that France, in the face of rising xenophobia, is also all shades of black, brown and white – just like the rest of the world. Furthermore, Moscow proved to be an unlikely yet generous setting — with the iconic image of a feminist protester high-fiving Mbappe serving as an inextricable reminder of our unrelenting times. Spasiba Russia, and dasvidaniya!