For those who decided not to come to Russia, put off by the prospect of a “festival of violence”, I feel sorry for you. So far, it has been anything but - with locals and fans from all over the World thoroughly held in the grip of World Cup fever.
Maybe it was helped by the hosts’ best performance on an international level for a decade - since reaching the semi-finals of EURO 2008 - but the Russian public are genuinely opening up from their usually stern demeanour and accepting the greatest football competition in the world.
I watched the opening game in the official FIFA Fan Fest at Vorobyovy Gory, overlooking the Luzhniki Stadium amidst an excellent atmosphere. As fans of Sbornaya (Russia) well know, this isn’t exactly a successful side. Without a win since October, expectations were at the lowest in a long time. Highest selling Russian daily newspaper Sovetsky Sport even claimed it the worst ever Russian side in the build-up. As a result, the atmosphere was tense at best with a slight air of anticipation. Far from genuine excitement or expectation.
Yet, just 90 minutes later the whole city was awash with chants of “ROSS-I-YA” in metro stations and on the streets as hundreds of Russian flags were displayed proudly aloft by fans on the ground and out of high-rise tenement windows. In truth, Russia may yet still not qualify for the knockout stages and faced a very poor Saudi Arabia side who certainly fancied their chances and played much more open than they should have.
However, Russia have had their big moment, and it was so much more than anyone could have ever predicted. The team should stay grounded and cannot afford too much time for celebration, but for a few days at least the nation and people can.
So far, the streets of central Moscow are awash with South American fans - particularly red and white clad Peruvians. The men from the Andes are all over and are clearly delighted to be at their first World Cup since 1982, and numerous are even clad in guinea pig/capybara/some other South American rodent costumes.
In all honesty, there has hardly been a hitch thus far, and everyone has been incredibly welcoming. The ultras and hooligans usually pervading Russian games are evidently following Putin’s strict orders to keep on the down-low.
My only problems thus far were far from corruption, hooliganism or anything to do with Russia, but three delays to flights and late changeovers causing to travel from Newcastle to Brussels, Riga, Venice and finally Moscow while my suitcase went to Riga and then the other side of Moscow to an airport south of the city.
The football and cultural experience, however, has been second to none.
I’ve covered one game so far, Morocco - Iran in St. Petersburg. Although the game as a spectacle was far from entertaining, the atmosphere was second-to-none. From the music pre-match to Moroccan’s incessant shouting of “sim” when in attack to a 96th minute winner, it had everything.
Far from being a festival of violence, the World Cup so far has been a true festival of football.