It seems with any major sporting event of global significance, there is usually a fair amount of skepticism leading up to the opening night. Skepticism on whether the stadiums will be ready on time, questions about the capability of local infrastructure to handle the influx of international fans, and, of course, security concerns.
The Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia were no exception, and it seemed that a fair number of journalists were almost hoping to find problems when they arrived. It’s interesting that now four years later, I only remember one problem: the double toilet stall. After googling, I was reminded of issues with one of the Olympic rings opening at the opening ceremony and snow quality on the ski slopes.
Th chuckle-worthy double toilet situation was in the lobby restroom of a media hotel. And we soon witnessed “Gotcha” journalism at its best as this image became a shooting star for a news cycle.
It’s interesting, and in retrospect, unsurprising, that the Russians did not appreciate this and some of the other complaining that came out of Sochi. Their response was: “If I cleaned my house, cooked dinner, and then invited you over as a guest, would you then look for something wrong with my house to to take a picture of and then send it to all of your friends?”.
As far as I understand, the task of journalism is to tell the truth. But outside of a baffling double toilet stall there was a much bigger story, and a much bigger truth of a nation that had spared no expense to welcome the world.
With the World Cup coming to Russia, I also had my fair share of concern. How would Russia really pull this off? Stadiums in 11 cities? And these cities aren’t exactly close to each other. I was involved in providing real estate for visiting international journalists and I saw that some of them still had no idea where they would be staying in a city, just days before a match.
There was even a real amount of concern whether the stadiums were well-organized enough to process fans in time, so that they wouldn’t be stuck in a queue before the match.
And what was perhaps just as concerning to me was that in talking to Russian friends in World Cup cities, they seemed to just roll their eyes at any mention of the World Cup and complain about how the authorities were handling everything. Just a month ago it seemed that most Russians simply were hoping that the World Cup would just pass by quickly.
And the Russia national soccer team was the butt of many jokes. No one expected them to win … well anything.
But then something magical happened.
Wagonloads of boisterous fans invaded the nation, catching the local population off-guard with their flamboyant national costumes mixed with singing, dancing, and smiling on the streets. They came in planes, trains, automobiles, bicycles, and tractors. A few even came by foot.
Then the Russian team beat Saudi Arabia in the opening match of the tournament by a score of 5-0.
The Russians were then caught off guard again by a left hook of positivity. The foreign fans not only were enjoying the soccer, they were telling everyone how amazing they found Russia to be, and how well-organized the event was in all 11 cities.
Then Russia beat Egypt 3-1.
This is not to say that there were no problems. There were stories of fans who confused the cities of Veliky Novgorod and Nizhni Novgorod and also went to Rostov Veliky instead of Rostov-on-Don. Russia lifehack: if you visit a city with “Veliky” in the title, you are more likely to be amazed by the ancient architecture of a town of historical significance than enjoy a soccer match.
Then Russia lost to Uruguay 3-1.
But somehow this time, fans having problems never seemed like a problem because of the euphoric mood in the nation. And local Russians soon found themselves enjoying helping these international guests in their time of need. There are stories of fans getting lost while driving and the local people welcoming them for the night, feeding them and then leading them where they need to go… all at no cost.
What I learned is that the World Cup is much larger than the Olympics. And it felt to me that soccer is almost secondary. The World Cup is an amazing Festival of the Nations. The fans love taking pictures with each other, and in comparison to professional football clubs, I noticed almost no animosity among fans of opposing teams, except perhaps in jest.
I almost forgot! Russia then beat Spain in a shootout and the country went berserk with euphoria.
I was able to get tickets to the France-Uruguay match in Nizhni Novgord with a friend. Here are my thoughts following the match. Note that the match was in Nizhni Novgorod, and the organization of the match was at a world class level.
Russia has so much to offer the world. And now, much of the world has seen much of Russia’s real capabilities. The national team went much farther than anyone expected, finally being knocked out in the quarterfinals in a shootout with Croatia. It has been super fun to see the Russian people gain so much national pride in such a short time, it has been fantastic to hear babushkas on park benches excitedly discussing soccer. And looking to the future, I am thrilled to see that each Russian has become a bit more of a brand manager for their homeland.
And who knows? Maybe there was a double toilet stall somewhere in Russia during the World Cup. But what’s made this month so fantastic is that nobody noticed. We were all too busy enjoying the top notch service, the clean city streets, and all these loud smiling faces from all over the world.