Kick of Emotions & Memories: Why This FIFA World Cup is Special
As soon as we entered the car parked outside the Azimut Hotel, St Petersburg, Usmanov Tulkin Akramovich, the Uber driver held his smartphone screen rather discomfortingly close to my face.
The screen flashed a bold text in English that read, “I wont give up till you pay in cash.”
My 9-year-old son burst out laughing at what looked like some extortion bid. Having experienced Russia for a few days already, he understood what Usmanov must have meant. I took the phone from him and pressed the mic icon and spoke in English, “Do not worry, I promise to pay you in cash.”
Soon enough the app translated it into Russian, lighting up his face with a reassuring smile. The 20-minute ride that followed to the Palace Square was pure entertainment.
Using smartphone while driving is rather rampant across parts of Russia that we visited. Realising rather late that we were not following his dosti spiel, he typed something on his smartphone and YouTube started playing Har dil jo pyaar karega from Sangam featuring Raj Kapoor. I had heard stories of how Raj Kapoor was popular in Russia and here was the 40-something driver in 2018, dancing and driving his Uber cab with two grinning Indians thoroughly entertained.
I am quite an old-school bloke when it comes to the use of gadgets and technology. I prefer writing with a fountain pen still, prefer writing cheques, prefer meeting friends without any appointment. Truth be told, I often have ridiculed my friends for relying too much on apps and technology. I wont anymore. Not after this FIFA World Cup Russia experience.
The entire country and all the visitors were on Google Translate or some such equivalent app. Very few people there could speak very little English. Maybe also they didn’t have the time and patience with thousands to attend to.
One afternoon in Moscow, after a tour of the iconic St Basil’s Cathedral in the raging summer sun, we decided to stop over for lunch at Cafe Pushkin, one of the most renowned restaurants in Russia. Some half-a-century back, Cafe Pushkin was just an imagination of a traveling French musician who had coined the name of an imaginary eatery in one of his compositions. Years later, it had fructified into an iconic restaurant serving discerning food enthusiasts. We landed at their doorstep without any reservations, confident that we would be able to manage. We were politely told that we would have to wait for four hours! In a matter of just four minutes, six of us, including my friend Debashis and his son; a famous Bollywood producer and her business partner; a young producer from Kolkata, had a table inside Café Pushkin. We managed! Don’t we always do?
The beautifully dolled up Russian girl assigned to our table couldn’t speak a word in English, nor could she even comprehend anything. But thanks to Google Translate, our orders were placed.
Our first match was between Portugal and Spain at the magnificent Fisht Stadium in the beautiful holiday resort town of Sochi embraced by the snow capped Krasnaya Polyana mountains in the north and the Black Sea in the south. In fact, the bowl-shaped stadium had a beautiful opening towards the north to present a panoramic view of the mountains.
The setting and design were indeed magical! Eight in the evening, as the sun was setting with a magical fiery glow just behind the Olympic torch outside the stadium, football enthusiasts from across the globe were walking towards it to witness the best in football. Within a few minutes we were engulfed by the buoyant stadium brimming with enthusiasm and cheer. The security drill was tight but way relaxed compared to that at any airport these days in India. Except for the officers who were frisking each fan, every other official had genuine welcoming smiles on their faces. Whoever said Russians don’t smile!
Fellow countryfolks, two doctors from West Bengal, carried a large Indian flag inside and invited us to pose for a photograph with it. That’s as much glory we had inside the arena of the best in football from around the world.
I was sad looking at my son, Aditya Shekhar, sworn to the sport more than anything else, and yet probably he couldn’t dream with conviction that he could ever possibly represent India in this mega earth fest. I wondered how difficult would it be to put together a select 110, nine-year olds from a diverse pool of a billion and a quarter and train them for the next 10 years.
Once seated inside, Aditya Shekhar was too overwhelmed to watch his hero Ronaldo score in the first few minutes. The atmosphere was electric and he became overcharged and motorised, nudging me hard with his elbow in excitement each time his idol even touched the ball. My limb was sore by the time he shot the hat-trick.
The revelry on streets after the matches all throughout Russia was the proverbial icing on the cake. Mexicans had virtually taken over the streets of Moscow after their swashbuckling win over the Germans. After a couple of hours of midnight grooving along with the flamboyant Mexicans around the Red Square, we were famished.
It took us another hour to find a cafe that had some pastries left after the Mexicans had swooped upon and left the Moscow kitchens clean and dry.
But they had gone a tad overboard with their in-stadium revelry when they subjected the Germans to a rehearsed collective abuse. The Mexicans seated next to us urged me to join them in their collective German bashing. I couldn’t unleash the Escobarish expletive on Kroos, Neuer, Ozil, Muller and other stars. And I love German cars.
How Hollywood over the years has painted a grey-dark-KGBish impression of Russia! Russians are a bindaas party-hard fun people! Our clubbing experience at the Mandarin in Sochi, Soho Rooms in Moscow and at the Buddha Bar in St Petersburg is comparable to some of the best elsewhere in Europe. The metro network is par excellence, cleanliness comparable to Kyoto. Food is a delight especially for meat lovers like me who do not discriminate between animals. Also, didn’t I tell you, I am quite old-school, hence believing in the wisdom, ‘while in Russia, do as the Russians do!’
Partying is also kind of funny in Russia around the summer solstice. The sky was all lit up and the sun was up as we went hopping from one club to the other a couple of hours past midnight. However, all that couldn’t give me and most other fellow travellers enough solace, when Argentina couldn’t win over Iceland. Sergio Aguero scored a beautiful one in the first 20-odd minutes, but the heart pined to see my idol, the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) score. He didn’t and in the first-half itself Iceland equalised. The stadium had more Argentine fans but the Icelandic cheering and celebration was among the most disciplined and beautiful.
Last year, I had returned from Denmark without visiting the neighbouring Iceland. I will make that trip soon. They’ve won me over. And so have the Peruvians, the Columbians, the Mexicans. Brazilians always have! Their respective 11 played on fields while their fans in thousands disarmed us of all stereotypes and prejudices. That’s also what the FIFA World Cup has always been achieving. I sincerely hope, Aditya Shekhar, and thousands of other visiting young football enthusiasts get back to their respective countries, disarmed and charmed by people and their diversities. Football is a beautiful religion!
The ride back to the airport was as entertaining. This time the driver was Vyacheslav with a Volkswagen Caravelle. But the drill remained the same. Within five minutes of leaving the hotel, his YouTube started playing ‘Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy, Aaaja Aaaja Aaja!’ Didn’t know Mithun da is quite a rage in Russia?
Shubho Shekhar Bhattacharjee, My Report
(I am the co-founder and Chief Creative Mentor of the Centre of Excellence in Indian & Western Music, Shillong. I was the Co-Founder, Creative Director & CEO of a boutique film production studio and had produced films like Do Dooni Chaar, Dosar, Mithya, The Last Lear and others.)
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