Something’s Happening Here

Daniel Brooks

Football fans are everywhere in Russia, travelling in packs and carrying signs. Many have painted faces. Some of them are lost and need help. Their nationality is displayed on their t-shirts or the flags they are carrying. Many wear some kind of identifying national dress, Egyptians in pharaoh outfits, Russians wearing fur hats in the middle of the summer, Scandinavians with helmets that have horns on them. These caricatures eliminate the risk of mistaken identities. If you wave at them, the fans will break out in song and honk on fog horns that they carry with them. Give them directions and you might well be included in a group photo. I helped one group of Peruvians find their metro station. After that, I got a hug.

This has happened before. In the late 70’s, the Soviet Union spruced up Moscow, just in time for the Summer Olympics. It ended up being boycotted by many countries because the USSR had invaded Afghanistan. The games went ahead and the city was visited by large numbers of foreigners. I moved to Russia in September 1980, just after the games had finished and remember thinking how well the city looked.  Many of the roads were newly paved and a large number of buildings had been painted, at least on the main roads. The city was emblazoned by placards that said, ‘Glory to the Communist Party’.  Lenin was ubiquitous, as was Brezhnev, with stern visages, the personification of solidity. Brezhnev was especially impressive. His confident gaze symbolized the firmly held belief that the Soviet Union was here to stay and would never go away.

But it did. The Communist party placards are gone and Moscow has again lived through another facelift in advance of a sporting event. Several parts of downtown Moscow have been completely refurbished and beautified by the City of Moscow without input from the general population. For the past few years, the city has again undergone extensive construction work, rebuilding roads, adding tunnels and extending the underground metro. Muscovites have stoically waited for the construction work to end for about four years, knowing peace would reign when the World Cup began. It did. No construction work is going on now.  

The mayor of Moscow did well, from an aesthetic perspective. Many areas of the city have been newly covered by white sidewalk tiles, a project rumoured to be under the auspices of the mayor’s wife. A joke circulated as the sidewalk work was under way. The mayor of Moscow woke up one morning and asked, what is our floor covered with? His wife answered, sidewalk tiles, dear. The mayor then asked, what is that, covering the walls? His wife answered, sidewalk tiles, naturally. Finally, the mayor looked up at his ceiling which was wide open and had a view directly to heaven. There sat God who looked down at the mayor and said, don’t even think about it. 

Moscow is being widely reported in the foreign press by journalists who expected greyness, boredom and unfriendly people, only to discover that Moscow now rivals any decent European city. This is the benchmark for cities. If a city is worth its salt, it is almost as good as a European one. Visitors have learned that Moscow has great food, cheap public transport and helpful citizens, many of whom are fully capable of assisting lost visitors. Some of the food is exciting. One scribe from a British newspaper was impressed by a sandwich wrap that had mangoes in it. Life in Moscow is fine. The centre of Moscow is patrolled by police and security guards, some of whom look like they were provided with new uniforms a week or two ago. The metro is as clean as a whistle with trains arriving every few minutes, well photographed by football fans from around the globe. Maps of the metro grid in Russian and English appeared just before the football championships; prior to that, it was all in Russian.  Even the rouble has been cooperative. Before the games, one US Dollar bought you around 60 roubles, today the rate is 63 and getting weaker with oil prices stubbornly coming down. This might not be good news for inflation but it does favour most visitors with other currencies in their wallets. For the time being the important thing is happy football fans.    

More recently, another episode of renovation for the sake of sport took place in Sochi, spectacularly rebuilt for the 2014 winter Olympics. A gorgeous complex was constructed along with facilities for skiing, ice skating and other winter athletics. An entire ski village went up and the nation was on edge as the construction of a number of hotels was completed at the last minute. The games were celebrated around the globe and the president of the country stood watching as one medal after another was being won. Like now, journalists commented that Russia is not full of bears, the people are out-going and the women are gorgeous. It was a good thing that everyone made plenty of hay while the sun was shining during the games. Afterwards, things went pear shaped. Much of the medal winning effort by the Russian Olympic team turned out to be chemically enhanced. Following the games, the rouble fell drastically in value and the economy did not do well. Due to the conflict in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea by Russia, sanctions were imposed. The Russian economy suffered through a crisis, having been hit with a perfect storm of inflation, a drop in the price of oil and becoming toxic as a target for investors, plus sanctions. The economy did eventually stabilise last year, just in the nick of time for the 2018 World Cup.   

While the Russian economy has been struggling since 2014, Russia has been investing heavily in stadiums and infrastructure in preparation for these football championships. Presumably, this investment was meant to stimulate economic growth. No invasions seem to be on the horizon. The rouble seems to be more or less stable.  Hopefully there is no connection at all between global sports events, global politics and the health of the domestic economy.  But let’s not worry about all that right now. After 32 years, Russia has finally gone to the next round of the Cup, following a solid victory over Egypt. Some things are better off forgotten while the football is being played.   

This would be a fantastic time for Russia to capitalise on the burst of tourism that is taking place. It won’t happen again soon. One would think that visitors are put off by the lengthy and often costly process of obtaining a Russian tourist visa. So far, the Russian government practices reciprocity. If a country makes it difficult for Russian citizens to obtain a visa, Russians make it difficult for visitors from that country to get a Russian visa. Admittedly, turnabout is fair play but perhaps there is a better way. Europe and (so far) the US doesn’t have a shortage of tourists. Russia could use a lot more of them. Simplifying the visa issuance process might just do the trick. 

The governing body of global football seems to be widely respected in Russia. The new football stadiums in Russia have been built to FIFA standards, the infrastructure in the country has been upgraded and many tons of fresh asphalt now cover roads across Russia. Perhaps the board of directors of FIFA could call for other standards to be met, while they are at it. Fewer bureaucratic barriers for small business and a lower interest rate on borrowing would be helpful. Simplified visa issuance for foreign tourists would be another useful change, boosting the tourism business in Russia. Big signs in the Moscow underground showing the names of the metro stops, visible from inside the train, would be fabulous. This would take away the need to ask over and over, ‘what station is this’. In exchange for modest FIFA oversight, Russia could sign up for another football championship down the road. It would be a small price to pay, and we would all have the chance to watch more great football. Everything for sport.