Vladimir Lenin looks boldly into the distance, right hand clutching his lapel, left hand holding his hat, overcoat billowing in the wind. Below him, that most famous revolutionary slogan: Oфициальный Mагазин, Official Fan Shop.
This is perhaps the defining image of the World Cup so far: Lenin’s statue outside the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, surrounded by the logos of FIFA’s wealthiest sponsors. Oh, the irony, we are invited to think, the brains of the communist revolution standing in front of a store, a store! What, we are subsequently invited to ask, would Lenin have made of it all, the corporate excess, the very confusing, Coca-Cola-brand structures lining the entranceway to the stadium, the Saudi Arabian defense?
This, it seems to me, is a bad question — (how could we possibly know what Lenin, that famous anti-capitalist, thought about all this capitalist excess?) — but it exists in the vicinity of some good (or at least better) questions about the relationship of an event of this size to the country that hosts it.
Walking around Moscow, it doesn’t feel like the World Cup is in Russia so much as hovering somewhere above it. The city center, the area around Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral, is heaving with fans — mostly South and Central American so far — but drift further out, or deeper down, into the city’s metro system, and evidence of the tournament grows scarce.
Vladimir Putin, addressing the Luzhniki crowd ahead of Russia’s opener, welcomed us to “an open, hospitable and friendly country.” This has proved true enough so far, but of course any event this big is bound to distort the world around it. And distort the world it has, everyone so publicly thrilled to be a part of the occasion.
Australians joking with Peruvians about Paolo Guerrero’s cocaine habit, Argentinians climbing up street lamps to cheer on their team, who don’t even play until Saturday, four Brazilians squeezed into one, extra large t-shirt, yellow and green on the front, Russian red, white and blue on the back, everyone taking pictures with everyone else.
Two Iranian men asked me to take their picture, commiserated with me about the USMNT’s failure to qualify, told me, unprompted, they didn’t care about “the politics,” that the World Cup is the “real event.” Outside the Luzhniki on Thursday, a group of Saudi Arabian fans couldn’t walk 10 yards without getting stopped by strangers asking for a selfie.
For all the jokes about how bad Saudi Arabia were in the opening match — and I was personally responsible for at least, like, 12 percent of them — it would take a truly miserable bastard not to be charmed by the excitement of their supporters. It’s probably not a coincidence the fans of the worst teams are, with few exceptions, the loudest, the happiest, the most abundant.
The big exception, of course, is the Russians, ranked 70th in the world, without a win in months heading into their home World Cup. Their fans were sporadically loud in the stadium — the anthem, Yuri Gazinsky’s opening goal and Vladimir Putin’s introductory speech earned the biggest cheers of the night — but mostly lost among the more effervescent foreigners outside it.
A few hours after the final whistle, on my way out of the stadium, I passed a small group of Russian fans, singing, dancing, taking turns on the communal vuvuzela. As I took the escalator down to the metro, I watched two policemen pass me on the way up, one behind the other, but both of them, upon hearing the the fans up above, beginning to smile.