Attending a World Cup Game in Russia
Attending a World Cup game was an unexpected benefit of our 2018 journey that we were blessed to be able to witness.
Hot Take: Going to the World Cup is bigger than sports and a must do for those that have the opportunity. (4.0 stars)
Pro Tip: Buying a cheaper ticket is fine (there are no bad seats in these stadiums) and the best fans are in the nose-bleed section.
Attending the World Cup is a must do for any sports fan. “The Game” (as the signs all around Russia read) is about much more than futbol (aka soccer). It is about humanity, hope, togetherness, and (the good kind of) patriotism. We saw grown men openly weep (from joy as well as sorrow) and geopolitical enemies embrace in friendship. We also felt an electric spirit of possibility in the air. The World Cup (rivaled only by the Olympics) is possibly the truest embodiment of the potential for sport to bring people together for what unites us. (If we sound smitten, we are)
Now a few words before we get too far ahead of ourselves. As Americans, we don’t really care about soccer (there, we said it). But, as with the Olympics, there is no reason that people can’t get legitimately excited about a game that features the world’s best but doesn’t occupy our national collective but once every 4 years (think badminton or ping pong…but with dudes with 6 packs – see there is something for everyone!). We also realize that FIFA is unjust (and probably evil), though nothing much worse than most professional leagues in the U.S. Finally, the World Cup is a huge tourist trap with excessive crowds, overrun local cultural sites, and inflated prices designed to separate you from your money in the fastest way possible. In short, traveling to the World Cup, for us, was a ONCE in a lifetime experience.
The World Cup also takes LOGISTICS. Firstly, to get into Russia is an ordeal under normal circumstances (think difficult and expensive visa requirements that take months – and mailing your passport away – to secure). Seeing Russia has long been on our bucket list, but the barriers seemed too high compared to the reward. However, the World Cup solved this as the $250+ entry visa process was replaced by a $105 World Cup ticket that included visa-free travel for a month in Russia (so we were $150+ ahead already). Unfortunately, securing these tickets was not easy and involved a lot of planning, late night online ticket sale purchasing from the USA (as our Indonesian ISP was not allowed by FIFA, but BIG thanks to Matt's Mom for helping!), mailing tickets to a stranger’s house in Australia (thanks for not throwing them away as junk mail), and booking train tickets to the never-before-heard-of city in rural Russia where the game was held. Furthermore, hotels were all sold-out (so we had to suffer in inflated price flophouses and AirBNBs). Getting around was not picnic either with sold-out trains and traffic-gridlocked taxi rides adding to the normal travel fatigue.
But after all the stress and travel, we made it to our game in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. To prepare for the games, the city (originally established in 1221) had been shined up like a penny with new roads, new metro buses, remodeled buildings, and a literally brand-new stadium. The festivities themselves were also wonderful with tons of friendly volunteers and police escorts. It felt like the entire city went out of its way to welcome us, the fans, to their not-exactly-on-the-map hometown. Aided by ample beer stands, we were in high spirits as we made our way into the stadium.
The game itself took our already high spirits to a whole new plateau. After one of the more efficient check-in procedures, we walked into the beautiful stadium to the full-throated singing of Costa Rican national anthem (note: we quickly realized that the crowd was 75% Costa Rica supporters). We found our seats just as the match began and were just as impressed to be in the presence of so many fervent fans (despite Costa Rica having been eliminated from the elimination round in the last game) as we were with the soccer being played. When the Costa Ricans scored their first goal of the game (which was their first goal of the entire World Cup), the stands erupted with such cheer that we felt like we were at a college football rivalry game. In fact, the coach of the Costa Rica team was shortly thereafter pictured on the jumbotron with tears streaming down his face in joy. While the game ended in a 2-2 draw (which Americans like us have little patience for), we both agreed that the atmosphere of the game was in the upper echelon of sports fan experienced we have ever had (and Matt REALLY likes his sports).