Samson Fountain of the Grand Cascade near Peterhof Palace, Russia
Samson Fountain of the Grand Cascade near Peterhof Palace, Russia

SHAUN PAIS winds back a year to his football-fuelled vacation in the world’s biggest country

When was the last time you did something for the first time?”, I pondered over these words printed on my laptop sticker, as I nervously browsed through airline websites at 3 am on a chilly January morning. I would like to think that I travel more than the average human being that works around 54 hours a week. I make it a point to leave the city at least once every 15-odd days. A short spin on the bike to an isolated lake outside the city or a refreshing trek to one of Mumbai’s nearby hill stations; nothing too extravagant.

FIFA fervour

And there we were, my college buddy Joannes and I, searching for flights to Moscow past midnight that would burn a hole in our very limited budgets. Why Russia? Shouldn’t 21-year-old boys be looking at more *ahem* appealing places like Thailand or Dubai instead? The answer was simple. The 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup was to be organised in Russia, as preparation to the World Cup that would follow the next year. Let’s be honest, the Confederations Cup is not what you dream of attending as a little boy. But a trip to Europe with your buddies to watch the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Alexis Sanchez play football? Definitely dream-worthy!

The original plan would involve the third member of our three musketeer gang, John to join us directly in Russia, since he was at the time studying in London. However, certain complications arose and John wouldn’t be able to make it. Nonetheless, we didn’t waste any more time and quickly booked our tickets with the help of Joannes’ girlfriend Nicole. And there we were, with stay booked in hostels and Airbnbs and a flight schedule that read Mumbai – Delhi – Moscow – Kazan – Petersburg – Moscow – Istanbul – Mumbai. Twelve days, seven flights? Let’s do this!

St.Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow
St.Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow

Magical Moscow

Six months later, a very jet-lagged Joe and I touch down in the Russian capital of Moscow. The 7-odd hour flight has definitely taken its toll, but not enough to stop us from quickly checking into our hotels and heading out to explore this pretty city. The weather is a lovely 10 degrees Celsius and the clear skies and fresh air make you want to spend all day outdoors. A ten minute walk down the road from our hostel brings us to Red Square. Right beside it is the very imposing Kremlin, the former royal citadel and now the official residence to Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia.

The best part about Moscow is that you can never be over-dressed. Everyone walking on the road is dressed to their absolute best. The men all wear well-fitting suits and dark aviators while the extremely stylish women dress as if the side-walks are stage ramps. Much sightseeing (St. Basil’s Cathedral, Lenin’s Mausoleum) later, we realise that we’re too tired to explore the Moscow nightlife and decide to call it an early night.

Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood
Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood

Next morning, we check out and we are off again to the airport. Two hours later, we land in Kazan, but aren’t allowed to de-plane yet. There’s another plane that’s landed just after ours and they’re given priority. Why? We peel our eyes and notice the Portuguese flag on the tail of that plane. That’s the plane that’s carrying Cristiano Ronaldo! We got so engrossed in the beauty of Russia that we almost forgot that we’re here to watch the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) play! Our warm Airbnb host Sergei comes to pick us up from the airport and gives us a few tips on what we can do for the day since our game is scheduled only for the next day. Joe and I decide to pick up a couple of beers for the night and head down to the local grocery store. And that’s when I notice a familiar figure walking towards us from a distance. As the person gets closer, it becomes even more obvious… it’s our third musketeer John!

While I was under the impression that John couldn’t come with us, he and Joe had already drawn up plans of him meeting us in Kazan. He had a rough journey though, after a long layover in Helsinki, Finland and finally here. The three of us, Alumni of St Andrews College Bandra, are reunited once again in Russia. Talk about surprises!

A dream come true!

We wake up the next day, knowing that we will finally see what we came for: the semi-final match between Portugal and Chile! All dressed in our red Portuguese kits, we set out to the Kazan Arena. The beautiful stadium is breathtaking from a distance and only gets better as you get closer. The funny part begins when the Russians and Chileans mistake us for proper Portuguese citizens. Our brown complexion and the kits combined with our Goan/ Portuguese surnames results in everyone cheering and taking pictures with us. Well, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!

And then, we enter the stadium. The Portuguese team comes out first. Cristiano Ronaldo, my idol, the boy from Madeira who I have loved since his Manchester days, stands 10 metres away. He looks at us three boys in Portuguese kits, smiles and gives us a thumbs up. Suddenly in that deafening stadium, it’s all serene for me. Suddenly, all life’s responsibilities have disappeared. Suddenly, it’s all perfect. That one small gesture from an idol is all that’s needed to make a memorable moment for a fan. That’s the power of Football.
Portugal does not overcome the determined Chilean side, but that isn’t going to stop us from leaving the stadium with an experience of a lifetime. We spend the next day sight-seeing around sunny Kazan. The small city is highly sports oriented and does not have too much to offer, but still is my most favourite one till date.

From Russia with love! FIFA fever and more

Of splendid landmarks

Next day, bags packed and we’re on our way to Saint Petersburg. If Moscow is the fashion capital and Kazan is the sports capital, Saint Petersburg is the historical and cultural capital of Russia. Every second structure here is splendid to look at and has immense historical value. The Hermitage Museum, Peterhof Palace, Winter Palace, Peter and Paul Fortress, Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, it is a feast for the senses. The bridges are well developed, the River Neva and its tributaries are charming and the beautiful old churches make this city seem like no other.

The beautiful football arena in Kazan
The beautiful football arena in Kazan

The three of us spend all day walking around, covering almost 10 km on foot. That’s the beauty of Saint Petersburg. You don’t want to take the metro or a cab just so that you can admire everything around you. The people are friendly and the nightlife is lit – what more can you want?

Some football and new friends

We wake up the next day with mixed emotions. Today we watch the finals of the Confederations Cup. Today we watch the organised Germans take on the hearty Chileans. But today is also our last day in this beautiful country. The Petersburg Arena is absolutely beautiful from every angle and is much larger and more modern than the Arena in Kazan. The game gets underway and we have already made friends with all the people around us. Brazilians, Frenchmen, Chileans, Germans, Australians, Russians and us Indian boys. The culture exchange at an international football game truly is like no other.

From Russia with love! FIFA fever and more

The game ends with the young German side clinching the title and filled with hope of repeating their splendid performance at the World Cup the next year. Well, if only they knew…In the end, we’re really happy we did the trip. We did it on shoestring budgets, with limited resources and without having any contacts. You don’t see too many 21-year-olds fresh out of college in their first jobs taking leave to visit countries that are wrongly termed as inhospitable. We did something for the first time. When are you doing yours?
(Instagram: ShaunChicharito)

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