MOSCOW: On Wednesday, the Luzhniki Stadium finally looked like it was ready to host the World Cup.
Not that there was anything wrong with it before. In terms of facilities being ready, Russia has been a breath of fresh air after Brazil and South Africa.
But on Wednesday, the stadium wore all those little things that make a World Cup a World Cup. Fans in jerseys of varied colours — previously restricted to the Red Square — had spilled on to the vicinity of the stadium, perhaps a preliminary recce before turning up for the final of their dreams, which ends with their team lifting the cup. The official fan shops that volunteers had been trying to put in place were finally up and operational.
Indeed, the iconic statue of Vladimir Lenin, in front of the stadium, now stood proudly behind a FIFA fan shop, peddling scarves for a thousand roubles and Adidas footballs for a lot more. Not exactly how he would have envisioned the future of his country! The various sponsor stalls were up, too, including a slew of obscure (at least in India) Chinese companies ready to explode on to global consciousness (heard of Mengniu Diary, anyone?).
Perhaps it is to Russia’s credit that, for all the talk of their government and people, there has never been one doubtful eye cast on whether they were prepared for the World Cup. The logistical operation that will culminate with the final at the Luzhniki next month is unprecedented in football history. The Local Organising Committee’s CEO Alexey Sorokin had some staggering numbers on what Russia had put in place over the tournament, to share with the FIFA Congress. “236 flights booked for teams, 1290 vehicles, 657 buses and vans, 39 hotels for FIFA officials, teams and referees. 365 hotels and 390000 rooms for the fans, 170 venues for World Cup-related events. 17,440 stewards and 21,556 private security personnel.”
On the field, it might feel like a soft opening. The opener features what fans describe as one of the worst Russian teams of all time versus Saudi Arabia. But the various sponsor events have ensured that a lack of narrative in this fixture does not derail the hype train. On Monday, Arsenal star Henrikh Mkhitaryan was on hand to meet fans while on Wednesday, it was former Barcelona star Xavi’s turn. And on the morning of the World Cup opener, Zlatan Ibrahimovic will hold court in one of the swankiest hotels in the city. They won’t have to distract fans for too long though. Mohamed Salah (injury permitting) and Cristiano Ronaldo will boot up on Day 2, Leo Messi and Antoine Griezmann will follow the day after.
The buses in Moscow have all been plastered over with World Cup iconography. The Metro stations have all got one sign in English — this way to the Luzhniki. Fans from around the world have already occupied the iconic Red Square with their songs, chants and colours. The likes of Messi and Luis Suarez dot billboards across the city. If there was one person in Moscow unaware that a World Cup was happening, he would have noticed by now.
Amidst the many tall claims that FIFA president Gianni Infantino made at the FIFA Congress, one was particularly pleasing to the ear. “Russia has never been conquered,” he declared. “But now, it will be conquered by football.” The invasion starts on Thursday.