The pact was made late one evening, back in 2013, fueled by plenty of alcohol after a long day of lectures — when tickets became available to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, we were getting tickets and meeting up in Moscow, no matter where in the world we might be living at that point. Fast forward nearly four years, the USA was basically guaranteed entry (they only needed a draw versus lowly Trinidad and Tobago), so Justin and James entered the lottery for tickets over cocktails in Cabo (where they were for our wedding). We were going to follow the USA through a World Cup, an experience on the bucket list of any soccer fan.
Well, turns out we were successful in the ticket lottery, but the US team did not hold up their end of the bargain. They somehow lost 2-1 to Trinidad and Tobago, while both Panama and Honduras pulled off miraculous come-from-behind wins that officially sealed the fate of the USMNT (as an aside, I recommend you listen to the American Fiasco podcast for an entertaining set of stories on the troubles of the 1998 USMNT which also includes a bonus episode of just how badly the USMNT screwed up in 2018). We all still agreed — even if we couldn’t cheer on our national team, we were still in for the experience of the World Cup in Russia. We got a five-pack of tickets for games at Moscow’s Spartak Stadium, and ended up supplementing those with another game in Kaliningrad. Good thing I still had a steady income when I made these commitments, otherwise, I don’t think I would (or could) have made it all happen.
I arrived in Moscow in mid-June, just as the World Cup was getting underway. Cecilia was not with me — this was a “boy’s trip”, so she set off for Greece and Italy and had her own fun with friends (Cecilia likes to give me trouble for being “disinvited”, but she did just fine with her alternative itinerary). My first impressions of Moscow were that it was huge, modern, and very Russian. That said, it was also very open and inviting, with signs of the World Cup everywhere — Russia was prepared to be host, recognizing this was their chance to shine on an international stage (all that said, who knows how much and what type of “cleaning up” was done to make Moscow seem so inviting to the world) .
Our first match was Argentina vs. Iceland, a chance to see Messi attempt to exorcise his World Cup demons and finally bring Argentina back to the top of international soccer. 90% of the fans were supporting Argentina — there was a huge Argentinian contingent and also loads fans, obviously not from Argentina, decked out in head-to-toe Argentina gear (I saw this repeated for Brazil — there were loads of front runners at the World Cup, most of them coming from across Asia). Argentina scored first, but Iceland quickly countered. As the game progressed, you could sense the fear growing in the Argentinian fans, while the Icelandic fans got louder and louder with their signature Viking clap sounding more and more menacing as we approached full time. I gladly cheered along with Iceland — I had decided I would support the underdogs since the US was not in it — and was quite excited when Iceland pulled off an improbable draw. It was a very memorable start to the World Cup.
Our second game was Poland versus Senegal, memorable for the Senegalese cheering squad that never once stopped cheering and dancing (they even continued through halftime). It was also memorable for the three Senegalese fans seated a few rows behind us, in a section that was 95% Polish, who decided to mock the Polish fans with their “Polska, Polska” cheers after Poland scored an own goal. This was initially shrugged off by the Polish fans, but when the Senegalese trio repeated their mocking after Senegal’s second goal (which sealed the win), I absolutely feared for their lives.
Our third game never was for me — Justin and I got terrible bouts of food poisoning the night before Belgium vs. Tunisia and spent the day sleeping, recovering, and visiting the bathroom. For our fourth game, we saw Brazil easily handle Serbia, which was more memorable for the text I received from my father — a picture of a TV screen capture clearly showing the four of us (James, Justin, myself, and Clayton, a good friend of James from Shanghai that I truly enjoyed getting to know during the trip) drinking beers in our blue Russia tank tops as Brazil attempted a corner kick. Second row seats, while not great for seeing the full field, were great for chances of randomly being caught by the camera.
For our fifth game, we flew out to Kaliningrad to catch England vs. Belgium. At the outset of the tournament, this was the game that I was looking forward to the most. Unfortunately, after the second round of the group stage, both teams were assured a position in the knockout round so the play was wholly uninspired, with both teams resting some of their star players. Kaliningrad was far more memorable for the pre-game partying with the English fans singing a rather catchy song put together for their time in Russia — OHH wee OHH, we’re England fans in Russia, OHH wee OHH, we’re drinking all your vodka, OHH wee OHH, England’s going all the way! (sung to the tune of the chorus of Earth, Wind & Fire’s September).
The final game was definitely the game of the tournament for us. We were back in Moscow for the round of 16, and Cecilia was able to join us (Clayton and Justin had to leave for home — we had already been in Russia for over two weeks, and they unfortunately were not given indefinite leave from their families to hang out in Russia). Luck would have it that the draw was Colombia vs. England, and Cecilia and I decided to go all in on cheering for England. We have both previously lived in England and this English team was one you could get behind — young, inexperienced, and playing exciting football without any weight of expectation bearing down on them. Once again, we had some excellent seats in the second row by the corner flag. England looked like they had the game wrapped up with a 1-0 lead going into extra time. And then the unthinkable happened — Colombia scored in stoppage time, sending the game into extra time. After no goals were scored after 30 minutes of extra time, the game moved on to penalty kicks. Unluckily for us, the kicks were at the opposite end of the field, but that did not really detract from the intensity of the shootout. Every English fan in the stadium (and across the world) was wholly aware of England’s recent history with penalty kicks, and it looked like they were headed down that same path when they were down 3-2 after the Colombia keeper made a save on England’s third round kick. Colombia’s next kick went off the crossbar and England equalized. England’s keeper came up with a huge save in the 5th round and all of a sudden England was in a position to win the match and break the curse. England converted and we went nuts, high fiving every other English fan in sight. It was a game for the ages and we were incredibly grateful to be there in person.
While England vs. Colombia was certainly the most exciting game I attended, the most memorable experience at the World Cup came on the night Russia beat Egypt 3-0 in the second round of the group stage, thereby guaranteeing them a spot in the knockout round given their first game 5-0 result against Saudi Arabia. Moscow went absolutely nuts. People flooded every street downtown and the place turned into the biggest party I had ever been to. The group of us met up with a couple Russian friends and promptly went on an epic bar crawl. We must have hit 10 different bars, each one of them packed to the gills with people celebrating. Lucky for us, our friends somehow seemed to know people at every bar, and we skipped each line, headed straight for the bar, had a beer and a shot, and set off the next bar. In perhaps the most epicly Russian moment of the entire time in Moscow, we were in the car going between bars, when we basically ended up in a defacto parade. Everyone was honking their horns and hanging out there windows and standing through sunroofs, chanting RU-SI-YA. At one point, we pulled up next to a BMW convertible with a shirtless, burly Russian man, chugging a bottle of vodka while a young, beautiful (way too beautiful for a guy of this size and age) model drove the car through the parade. My only regret is that I didn’t ask him to pass the bottle of vodka.
In the end, I was thoroughly impressed with how Russia managed as hosts. I always felt welcomed and safe. The city was remarkably easy to navigate, despite the hordes of tourists. The police were ever present, but I never once saw an altercation or arrest. And I met people from around the world who inevitably shared the same opinion. And the friends we had in Russia, in particular Mikhail, were absolutely amazing hosts to us — taking us out to fantastic restaurants and bars, and showing us the city with an insider’s perspective. My only complaint about the whole thing was that somehow Budweiser got exclusive sponsorship of the matches, and Bud heavy was the only alcohol available for consumption at every game in every stadium across the country. Leave it to America to infiltrate Russia with one of its worst offerings. Oh, and there was that little fact that multiple times a day, we would look at each other and think aloud how awesome the whole experience would have been if only the USMNT could have just tied Trinidad and Tobago.