MOSCOW: As someone walks into the hitherto-unattended Aeroflot counter at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, a burst of life passes through the long queue waiting for her attention. It has long outgrown the area cordoned off for passengers of the Russian airlines and it stretches all the way to the entrance. Almost all of them have cards hung around their necks, identifying them as holders of match-tickets at the World Cup. The woman takes one look at the people waiting for her as she takes her seat and sighs.
“Many, many, many!” she answers in exasperation when asked if she had encountered a lot of football fans over the last few days. “People who have not gone out of the country before in their lives are going for this. All because they don’t need a visa!”
India may not be at the 21st FIFA World Cup in Russia but it is perhaps the most Indian World Cup yet. FIFA officials are unwilling to part with the exact numbers, but it is estimated that an impressive 18,000 fans from the country have made it there. That’s more than at least a third of the countries who have actually qualified and a big surge up from the few thousands who went to Brazil.
A WhatsApp group comprising of fans from the country travelling to Russia throws up all kind of stories. There’s a 60-year-old from Kolkata who started supporting Brazil in his teens and is going to see them live for the first time in a World Cup. There are also young professionals, midway into their twenties, who have just about saved up enough to fund their first professional trip.
There are a lot of factors at play. This is the closest World Cup to India in terms of flight time and prices — the first Asian World Cup in Japan and South Korea was farther for most Indians than Russia. There is also the fact that India’s massive base of European football fans, indoctrinated as kids in the late nineties and early noughties, are now in their mid or late twenties and earning. For many of them, this is the first World Cup that they can afford to go to.
Subham Singhania is 24 and works for a US-based firm in Pune. He is in Moscow for his first ever World Cup — something that he had been planning for the last six years. “I landed here on June 9 and will be in Russia till the end of the World Cup,” he says. “It took me a year to save up for this.”
Abey Abraham, who works for Adidas in Bengaluru, has the same story to tell. He, and three of his friends, started planning a year ago. The long-time Argentina fans will now cheer on Messi & Co in their opener against Iceland.
As people fish out their bags off the conveyor belt at the Sheremetyevo Airport, Amarnath Mahadeeswaran is still waiting. He had brought his bicycle along to Russia and was planning to ride it across the country, starting with the 35km trip from the airport to Moscow city (that would later end in aggravation with Amarnath losing his way and ending up on the road to St Petersburg).
For Amarnath, the World Cup will not be just football. He is watching only a handful of games, but is spending more than a month in the country, exploring its various nooks and corners including a trip to Siberia in July. The prospect of having unfettered access to a country, notorious for having a complex visa system was just too good to turn down. It’s not for nothing that a lot of people waiting at the Aeroflot counters in Delhi resemble families going on vacation than hardcore football fans.
Take the case of Mohammed Kassim, a medical student from Kerala. The 20-year-old studies in nearby Ukraine and has been itching to explore Europe. However, complications in getting a visa had thwarted his plans so far. “I’ve been trying to travel across Europe but I hold an Indian passport and it’s quite difficult to get a visa with that,” he says. For the World Cup, all he had to do was board a bus from Kharkiv, where he stays, to Russia. No questions asked. Except for one. Who do you support?