Unlike American football, most soccer fans actually play (or used to play) the sport they watch so passionately, so soccer spectators frequently transform themselves into soccer players at half-time or after the final whistle of the match they’ve been watching.
This has definitely been my experience during the World Cup in Russia.
The FIFA Fan Zones in Saransk and Volgograd even had small cages with mini-goals available for fans to challenge each other to two-on-two soccer matches, but one could also find spontaneous three-on-three, four-on-four, and other variations of soccer matches — as well as plenty of soccer juggling circles — within the Fan Zones and beyond.
As much as I enjoyed and appreciated these spontaneous soccer-playing opportunities, Russia’s World Cup — and, more precisely, Russian people — have provided me an even more enjoyable and appreciated soccer-playing experience in the host city of Volgograd.
It started with the generosity of a young couple who learned about the abusive rates hostels and hotels were charging during the World Cup and decided to offer their couch and the limited floor space in the small apartment to visiting fans via Couchsurfing. Unfortunately for me, an Argentine fan was quicker than I and got the couch first. Then that kind couple introduced me to their FC Rotor (Volograd’s main soccer club) “hooligan” friends.
Once my conversations with those hooligans progressed from the topics of watching and supporting soccer teams to the topic of playing soccer, one friendly fellow invited me to play with his team the following morning. Because getting from the apartment where I was staying to the field where I would be playing was less convenient than staying the night at that friendly fellow’s home, he invited me to sleep at his home that night. We could go together to the field in the morning.
Similar to many Russians I’ve met who rarely smile at first glance yet are very kind and helpful, this Russian apartment building did not seem so welcoming from its exterior appearance. The apartment itself was quite comfortable and beautiful.
In the morning, my new friend’s mother prepared us a delicious breakfast before we left to play, and as we were putting our shoes on to leave she gifted me a freshly minted World Cup-edition 100 ruble bill featuring a child caressing a soccer ball while watching or dreaming of Lev Yashin (famous USSR/Dinamo Moscow — and arguably history’s greatest — goalkeeper) making a diving save.
Upon arriving to the field my new hooligan friend introduced me to the other players. I was a little surprised and almost disappointed by the amount of warm-up and training exercises that ensued. After an hour or so of these exercises, teams were formed and a proper six-on-six match began. It was indescribably delightful.
The quality of the soccer was good, and my teammates were extremely kind. Despite not understanding much of what everyone was saying, it was evident that everyone on my team and the other were encouraging one another, congratulating the good plays and forgiving the not-so-good plays. I knew I would surely suffer a sunburn soon after, but I didn’t want to stop playing, nor stop smiling.
We shared cold beers, good conversations, and big smiles in the locker room and beyond. Had I not already purchased a train ticket to travel to Moscow that afternoon, who knows how long I would have hung out with such hospitable “hooligans” in Volgograd.
Eugene resident Killian Doherty has been blogging his experiences at the FIFA World Cup in Russia for EW. To read all his posts click “2018 World Cup” below.