Photos by Cat Flores
Walking from the subway station to the stadium a couple of miles away, tens of thousands of Argentinian fans had already started celebrating their achievement to come. Nobody would take their seats until the final whistle blew to end the game, the crowd carrying their team to victory. After an electrifying game, Argentina narrowly defeated Nigeria 2-1. They stayed up all night on the streets of St. Petersburg partying and praising Lionel Messi. This could mean only one thing, the World Cup had begun.
The World Cup is a distinguished soccer tournament that occurs every four years in which national soccer teams from 32 countries participate. This year, it was held in 11 cities across Russia, which I was able to attend.
This is the first time in its history that Russia has allowed so many foreigners into the country at one time. The streets of cities such as St. Petersburg and Moscow were overrun by mobs of excited fans from different countries cheering their teams on. This was a clear contrast from Russians’ usual reserved behavior. They don’t socialize with strangers, and especially not foreigners. But it appeared to me that the presence of these fans changed the way that Russians viewed foreigners. Instead of closing themselves off to the people from other countries, they started to join in on the frenzy of the World Cup.
In the host cities, huge public spaces were designated as Fan Festivals. Here, there were multiple big screens where matches were displayed, stages for concerts, and mini fields where fans could play soccer, as well as other games. Food and drink stands were everywhere. Shops for World Cup merchandise always had long lines. Fans would gather hours before games, anticipating kickoff.
St. Petersburg, where I spent most of my time in Russia, was lit up every day and night with celebrations leading early into the next morning on “White Nights,” when the sun only goes down for about 2 hours. On game days the city’s energy was buzzing as soccer fanatics prepared for yet another captivating match. Everything stopped for the games and everyone was watching.
Whether I saw the games at the overwhelming Fan Fests or a local restaurant, the liveliness of the tournament was all around me. The sound of horns and chants along with the smell of Russian delicacies and hotdogs filled up the Fan Fest. Restaurants were overflowing with families and friends enjoying nice meals during games. It is a feeling and a rhythm I could never escape, but it is what brought me closer to the World Cup.
At the semi-final Belgium vs. France, I saw soccer lovers from both nations dressed in their players’ jerseys with their faces painted to show off their pride. The most passionate fans were dressed in crazy costumes, such as suits with the entire French flag, or different hats and accessories all in Belgian colors.
When I got into the stadium and the teams’ national anthems were playing, I looked around myself and everyone was standing up. Thousands of fans were singing for their country. The roar of the stadium was so powerful that I could feel the ground under me moving.
Even fans from small countries such as Iceland and Panama traveled thousands of miles to see their teams play. This tournament was the first time that Panama had ever qualified to be in the World Cup. Approximately 5,000 supporters from this tiny country in Central America traveled more than 7,500 miles to see their national team play. The playing of Panama’s national anthem during their opening match filled fans and players with pride and brought them to tears. Emotion had overcome the stadium.
People from all around the world came even if their country did not qualify for the tournament. The people who traveled to Russia were soccer lovers regardless of whether their team moved on or not. This was how every fan was united; by their endless love for the game. Although people were loyal to their teams, the fans were hungry for great games.
This World Cup specifically had many upsets and teams that went farther than ever before. Russia, being the host country, automatically qualified for the tournament. However, they quickly proved themselves worthy by making it all the way to the quarter-final. Excitement was already building in the country as Russia had made it out of the group stage. When they beat Spain, a perennial powerhouse, in the round of 16, Russia went wild. Fans were out all night celebrating their win. The Russian team’s perseverance inspired more Russians to support their team and soccer altogether than ever before.
So what is it that makes the World Cup so important to us? Well of course there’s the soccer. Almost every match this tournament was truly exciting. But discovering a new country, making friends, trying new food, visiting museums and important cultural sights, are as important as the fútbol phenomenon that brings us here.
Although the World Cup means everything to its fans, it is much more than the games. Whether our favorite teams are eliminated or advance to the next round, we still paint our faces and cheer on because of the fever that takes over us. The World Cup brings fans to the stadium, but our shared love of soccer brings us closer together.