MOSCOW: You get the first inkling that something special is in the air when you land in one of the two metro stations that service the Luzhniki Stadium. It’s five hours to kick-off but the usually lonely tracks are filled with fans, volunteers and security guards.
As you exit to the hustle and bustle along the path to the stadium, it slowly dawns on you. It’s a World Cup final! The best day of any festival is the last day. It’s when the brightest fireworks are lit and the biggest bands play. But there’s something about this final that makes it even more special, possibly a result of it being the culmination of something that began on December 2, 2010 when FIFA controversially awarded the hosting rights to Russia.
It’s a cauldron of emotions — you smell excitement, tension, exhaustion, relief, joy with a sinking sense of sadness. The final is probably the least tribal of all World Cup games, even for a tournament like this one where most games involving European teams saw a significant turnout of neutral fans. Unlike other games, where the lure is a team or a player, the final is an attraction unto itself. Nobody is more aware of this than FIFA, going by the number of volunteers peddling scarves with ‘World Cup final’ woven onto them at a thousand roubles apiece.
There is a healthy dose of fans in the famous red-and-white checkerboard design of Croatia and the deep blue of France. But outnumbering both are the neutrals — you see jerseys of Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Mexico and of course, Russia. The job is twice as hard for the row of face painters lining up the roads to the Luzhniki — they often have to paint flags of both participating countries, one on each cheek. Inside the stadium, few have the time to stand still. The corridors that lead to the pitch are filled with props for the closing ceremony.
Volunteers hurriedly drag in flags of both countries from the pitch after a rehearsal, officials in suits run from room to room. Not everyone is at work though, for most officials who managed other venues land up in the Luzhniki for the final. For them, this is a well-deserved rest, a reward for the pains of the last month. “Today no work, just enjoyment,” shouts one of them out, when he sees a familiar face. The last day is the hardest for volunteers. Unlike FIFA officials or journalists who have some hope of running into each other at another football game, the farewells for most of the volunteers are final.
The World Cup is built on the back of these unpaid workers, who have spent an entire month spending most of the day with each other. The volunteer party that will extend into the early hours of Monday morning will see quite a few tears shed. The many fans already in their seats rise and applaud the players who look around with awe and resolve on their faces. You can sense that some are a bit overwhelmed but that’s only natural. It’s a World Cup final after all!