Red Square. A place that people like me, who grew up in the 1980s or earlier, remember as a place where the Soviets showed off their fearsome military hardware every year, including their latest intercontinental ballistic missiles that would start World War 3 and end humanity. Well, humanity got her own back now, because there was a sea of humanity at Red Square, wearing football jerseys in a multitude of colours, so bright that even the psychedelic onion domes of St.Basil’s Cathedral seemed tame in comparison. Heck, even I got into the mood with my fellow travellers and wore the new Indian football jersey, which is in a lovely shade of blue, just to add to the colour of the city.
It was strange, though. Russia, famous for its leggy blondes, seemed to have none; there were more attractive Latinas from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Peru, dancing around. An anachronism from Soviet times that gave several South American nations visa-free entry into the old Soviet Union has carried on in modern Russia, which is why an estimated 100,000 Peruvians are here to support their team at the World Cup. If you have any sense of geography, you will know that Peru is very, very far from Russia. Some fans I spoke to had quit jobs, taken a combination of six flights and two trains, over two days, to be at the World Cup. Mexico too had immense support – the Emirates A380 flight from Dubai had been full to the brim with them, as was the hotel we stayed at. One fan told me he had travelled from Guadalajara to Mexico City to Houston to Dubai and now to Russia, which is normally not something that your doctor would recommend you do at the age of 50.
I had travelled with a few other journalists from India to watch the Germany Mexico game, and my word, what a game it was. In the 80,000-seater Luzhniki stadium, the Mexicans outnumbered the Germans three to one – keep in mind that Germany is just about three hours flying time away. Maybe the fact that Angela Merkel does not get along too well with the ‘new’ Vladimir made fewer German fans travel, or the fact that many German families lost someone on the Eastern front and that the Russians never forget mentioning the ‘Great Patriotic War’ at every single opportunity they get.
The Mexicans were buzzing before the game, wearing all sorts of extravagant costumes, from giant sombreros and other headgear to full-on semi-naked Aztec warrior gear. As The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army blasted from the beer sponsor’s tent, they were working themselves into a frenzy. The game was a stunning upset, as Mexico beat the world champions and the number one ranked team in the world, thanks to a Hirving Lozano strike. And if you thought the Mexican fans were nuts before the game, when that goal was scored, thousands of litres of beer flew up into the air, as they threw cups of the stuff up. I genuinely do not have the adjectives to describe the noise, which was loud in a way I have never heard before. Apparently there was some homophobic chanting and unexplained booing of Jerome Boateng, the Bayern Munich defender who is of African descent, but by and large, the Mexican fans were a great bunch.
Outside, as some Germans were stunned at the shock defeat, the Mexicans danced under the statue of Lenin like this was the Dia de Muertos. A Mariachi band was playing Russian-inspired tunes, and a couple of Mexicans were trying and failing at the Cossack dance. Nothing on television captures this sort of stuff, and watching a World Cup game live was a whole new experience – the atmosphere, the noise and the party. Boris Johnson, the floppy-haired British Foreign Minister, compared this World Cup to Hitler’s 1936 Olympics, but the mood and festive atmosphere in Moscow does not remind me of any of the films I have seen of the Nazi Olympics. It was a full-on party in Moscow, and it will continue. This World Cup has been one full of excitement and verve, and it wasn’t just Mexico defeating Germany. Russia themselves have done well and Iceland, tiny Iceland, with 350,000 people, held Messi and company at bay. And then there is Cristiano Ronaldo – boy, what a player. This one game and experience of Moscow has only whetted my appetite – I definitely want to go back for a knock-out game.