Never in my life did I think the words Здравствуйте, пожалуйста and спасибо would be the main part of my daily vocabulary. Especially thinking back to the scenes in Marseilles in 2016 and my Dad’s words when I arrived home that summer: ‘You’re not going to Russia are you?’
But as it happened, ever since I sat in a pub in Tallinn watching England secure qualification for the World Cup, I knew the next 9 months of my life was pretty much just a build-up to returning once again to witness the Greatest Show on Earth.
What better way to get in the mood for a trip to a brand new country than trying to learn a little of the language? After grafting my way towards intermediate Spanish for the last few years, I had vowed never to even bother trying with a completely different language. But I don’t choose who hosts the World Cup so here I was, and I was pleasantly pleased and proud to find that after my first one-hour lesson I could pretty much understand the Cyrillic alphabet. It took many more hours to learn it properly, and my reading was very slow, but it was a great first step that made the whole trip already seem more exciting.
To be honest, I’ve never been one for listening to what the media tell you to think and giving any value to what I hear. This was exactly the case when it came to political tensions between Russia and the West. Around this time there was a famous poisoning of a Russian spy by other Russians in a quiet tourist town in England. As a result, the majority of media output towards Russia was very negative. This combined with the constant reminders of the violence when England met Russia in Marseilles, there was no great enthusiasm for a trip to the World Cup amongst the general public at home.
I discussed the trip with 4 or 5 people who I had travelled with or met during football trips, and each time the answer was: ‘Not a bloody chance I’m going to Russia.’ And when telling friends, the general response was:
‘Noooo, you can’t go to Russia, you’ll get battered.’
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t consider the dangers, but weighed against my previous experiences of being told not to go to places by people whose opinions were based purely on media propaganda rather than their own personal experience, I never once considered not going.
A nice twist to the planning came about when a good friend I met in Tanzania, Adam, got in touch as he’d seen me post on Facebook about the World Cup.
‘Hey man, I live in Moscow now.’
‘Awesome, is it safe?’
‘Aye man, no worries at all, great place.’
That nicely put my mind at ease about any safety concerns, he also tagged me in a Facebook post which essentially ended up with us being part of a documentary for the main Russian state sports TV station, who would broadcast most of the games – Match TV. The first step was a visit from the lovely Maria who came to Manchester for my first interview outside the National Football Museum. Feeling slightly nervous and very awkward, I tried my best to answer the questions and embarrassingly showed my general ignorance of Russia.
‘So what comes to mind when you think of Russia?’
‘Errrrm, vodka and football violence.’
Great first impression Mart!! But it was met with a smile as if to suggest it would work well on their show. The purpose was to follow the adventures of fans from all participating countries throughout the whole tournament. Although not in my comfort zone, this has the potential to be a wonderful adventure.
As the domestic season came to a close and talk turned to the World Cup, the excitement really started to build. Match tickets were purchased up to the quarter-final, a month holiday from work was arranged, flights booked; the time was approaching. Most importantly of all, the World Cup sticker album was completed for the second time in a row.
Days before I flew to St Petersburg, I saw a low-budget documentary made by two Russian guys during the Confederations Cup, and his parting speech left a tear in my eye.
‘The World Cup is a gathering of people from all around the world, all different cultures mixing together. Every person is here fulfilling a lifetime dream and are as happy as they have ever been, hosted by people who are enjoying the opportunity to see things and meet people they otherwise never would. A truly unique environment where all are united by their passion for the beautiful game.’Radom dude on a Russian documentary
Remembering those words from my Dad post Euro 2016 – ‘You’re not going to Russia are you Mart?’ – this possibility of not going never seemed more inconceivable than right now. There’s absolutely no chance in the world that I’m not going to Russia. Пошли!!!