I couldn’t wait to watch the first game of the World Cup today.  My session with the kids in City Camp finished at 5pm, the football kicked off at 6pm, and I wanted to watch the opening ceremony, I wasn’t sure when that would start.  Tim wasn’t able to join us because he was working until 7pm, Wesley said he would be at the Fan Fest.


What is the Fan Fest?  Basically it’s an enclosed area where members of the public can watch World Cup matches on a giant screen.  In Volgograd this is on the Embankment, at the bottom of the Alley of Heroes.  I could tell on my way from work that I wasn’t the only one going there.  Gangs of volunteers and cheerleaders (people dressed in uniforms trying to get people excited about the tournament) were walking the streets, playing music, waving giant foam hands in the air and generally smiling at everyone and demanding people “give them five” (“davite pyat!”).  There were people selling giant foam hands and flags, people putting face-paint on children, and grown-ups.  No vuvuzelas, thankfully!


Security was very tight, a line of scanners, security guards with electronic wands, and uniformed police standing behind them.  I got through and one of the guards started asking me about my tablet.  I’ve no idea what he was asking, but I showed it to him, switched it on, and he seemed happy.


People couldn’t bring food or drink with them – I expected this and finished a cold drink before going through security, but other people in the line had to surrender their contraband.  Once inside you could buy your own refreshments, provided your refreshments were Budweiser, Coca Cola or MacDonalds, and you had several hundred roubles and the patience to stand in a long queue.


When I arrived there was a master of ceremonies on the stage and some kind of game involving giant balls going on at the bottom of the embankment steps.  I found a spot where I could see the screen and not get in the way of people behind me, and sat down.  I decided pretty quickly if Wesley was here my chances of finding him were close to zero – the place was absolutely packed.


The screen started showing pictures of the crowd while playing rock music, it was fun to look around and see the people on the camera, usually doing silly dances or wearing funny costumes.  Eventually they cut to the opening ceremony – it seems it had started some time ago, they just had better things to do than broadcast it in Volgograd!  Robbie Williams had just finished singing Let Me Entertain You, but they let us watch him since Feel and a duet of Angels with a Russian singer.


Then we saw the President of FIFA closely followed by a speech from the President of Russia (who got a very big cheer from the crowd).  And then suddenly the teams were coming out and it was time for the national anthems.  In English, we could hear the announcer at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow saying “Please stand for the National Anthem of Saudi Arabia.”  To my surprise, people in the crowd in Volgograd, respectfully, did start standing.  It happened slowly, like a ripple effect but pretty soon almost everyone was standing (possibly just so that they could see the screen).


Then it was time for the Russian national anthem.  Of course, everyone in the crowd sang – not all of them in tune, but certainly all with passion.  And suddenly the match kicked off!


The first 10 minutes or so were quite even – Saudi Arabia didn’t seem out of place and weren’t bad at keeping the ball, and Russia mainly counter-attacked.  But then Russia got the first goal – a player called Gazinskiy who I had not heard of before.  Of course the crowd were pleased!  They were less pleased when one of their better players, Dzhagaev had to go off because of injury.


The rest of the first half was quite calm.  A couple of Rotor fans came and sat in front of me.  I was sat next to a polished granite “bannister” that a couple of kids spent most of the half sliding down again and again.  There were lots of family groups around me, lots of people with face paint, people with big Russia flags, and just as many women as men.  I only saw one man who might have been a Saudi supporter (or, he might have been a Russian Imam).


Just before half-time Dzhagaev’s replacement, Cheryshev scored a second goal, so there was a nice buzz when the half-time break came.  I took one look at the concession stands and decided it would be better to go home for something to drink (my apartment is only 5 minutes away from the Fan Fest).  I also grabbed a jacket, not because it was cold but because it was not very comfortable sitting on the bare stone steps!


I did miss the start of the second half but I was back before they scored any goals.  More people were standing in front of my spot, so I ended up standing for most of the half myself.  I got up just after the manager Cherchasov (who has been criticised for his decisions) took off one of his players and brought on a big man up front, Dzyuba.  One minute later, he managed to get his head on a cross and it was 3-0!  Inspired substitution and smart move of mine to stand up!  Russia went on to get two more goals in injury time (Cherchasov again, and a Golovin free kick).

After the match the MC introduced a Swedish musician called Arash, famous for hits like Bora Bora and Ole Ole (I hadn’t heard of him, though I think the second song might have been a Eurovision winner).  They partied into the night, ending with fireworks though I left after the first song.


So I will probably watch a lot of football matches on those big screens in the coming weeks!  It will be interesting to see how popular they are when it isn’t Russia playing, hopefully there will still be a lot of people there, but the atmosphere for the opening match, with a 5-0 win for the home team, I don’t think that is going to be beaten!

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