Things I Wondered: World Cup 2018

Here are 15 thoughts after attending the FIFA World Cup in Russia.

Before Twitter allowed me to make short, quippy musings all day every day, I used to do this gimmick on Facebook called “Things I Wondered.” I’d keep a week’s worth of unrelated, tweet-like bullet points and then publish them all in one giant note (Facebook Notes!) every Sunday. 

Twitter rendered that obsolete because I can just tweet things in realtime now. But I still find it fun to dust off the old format to recap big events or travels. And it doesn’t get much bigger than spending the last two weeks in Russia for the FIFA World Cup.

If you’d like specific thoughts on the Russian traveling experience, check my separate blog here. This post will focus on just the soccer part of the trip.

For context, I attended the three Portugal group stage matches: against SpainMorocco, and then Iran. Now here you go, in no particular order: “Things I Wondered: World Cup 2018.”

-Off the bat I’ll admit that being a sports fan is submitting yourself to an abusive relationship. That bodes true if you’re a Knicks or Bills or Reds fan who takes years of abuse from underperforming franchises and keeps coming back. But it also fits entire governing bodies, like the NCAA or the IOC or, duh, FIFA. These are organizations rife with corruption, mismanagement, and bungling public relations departments. But damnit if an amazing Final Four or dramatic Summer Olympics or Cristiano Ronaldo hat trick don’t forgive a lot of sins.

-My biggest takeaway from this tournament (having attended Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup): I never felt “World Cup fever” in Russia. It reminded me a lot of when New York hosted the Super Bowl. There were pockets of hosting passion if you sought them out, but for the most part — especially in Moscow — it felt like all us tourists and soccer fans were inconveniencing their daily life, not enhancing it.

-Maybe it’s a Soviet thing. In 2012 — co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine — I felt a marked difference between the warmth and buzz of the Polish people and the “yeah guess some games are happening” vibe of the Ukrainians. And sure, it’s not fair to compare any country to Brazil when it comes to soccer, but in 2014, every store/shop/bar/laundromat/daycare had every game on TV. People talked about nothing else. And I’m not crazy, because I spoke to two dudes from Kenya in a Moscow bar, who had been to six different World Cups between them. Each said this year’s had so far been the wettest blanket of them all.

-There was one major exception to the above: any time Russia played. I hadn’t arrived yet when the hosts thrashed Saudi Arabia to kick off the tournament. But I was in Moscow the night they thrashed Egypt and basically booked a spot in the knockout rounds. And…HOLY HELL.

This was a Tuesday night. At 1 a.m. And a stretch of streets nearly a mile long overflowed with elbow-to-elbow fans waving flags, climbing light poles, chanting, kissing strangers, and generally having the time of their or any other lives. The next day’s empty streets, with different countries now playing, made the night before feel like some vodka-induced fever dream.

-Also unlike what I’d seen in 2012 or 2014, Russia teemed with Chinese and Indian fans just there to stargaze and check out a World Cup. Can’t tell you the number of visitors from those countries in superstar jerseys attending matches. They knew nothing about Portugal or Argentina but, when I asked a few of them what made them support those teams, they all just said “I love Ronaldo/Messi.” Do your thing man.

-Very disappointed in the Portuguese fan base. We did not show up at all, and Russia’s on the same continent! I expected to be outnumbered in the stands against Spain because they’re bigger and more successful. But Morocco made that match feel like a home game, easily 80-20 in their favor for fans. Same with Iran. We couldn’t make any noise, both because we were severely overpowered but also because — see above — most of our fans were neutrals who just came to see Ronaldo in person, not cheer for Portugal. Oh well. ::Searches for “Deal With It GIF”:: Still advanced.

-The fact there were indeed more Chinese people “rooting” for Portugal in Russia than actual Portuguese people made it a little awkward the first three or four times I went up to someone and yelled “Força Portugal!” only to get a confused, blank stare back. Stopped doing that quickly.

-I thought about ranking the fan bases on who showed out the most, but it’d be hard to know for sure since I didn’t get to every host city. However, from what I saw myself and read or heard secondhand, it would go something like Peru, Morocco, Colombia. In general, all of the Islamic nations (I witnessed Morocco, Iran, and Egypt) and the Latin American nations (Peru/Colombia, but also Mexico and Argentina in particular and to lesser extents Uruguay/Panama/Costa Rica) went 13/10 bananas for amount of people and enthusiasm in the streets.

-The European countries all disappointed me in their lack of attendance, considering none of them had to even leave the continent to get there. The lack of fans for the Asian and African teams in the tournament was also disappointing, but more so for lack of diversity and more people to have fun with. Because I really can’t blame someone from Dakar not wanting to trek all the way to Yekaterinburg.

-Want to talk to someone from a country whose language you don’t speak? You don’t need to know a single word, just the name of any one player from any point in that team’s history. Yell “Honda!” to someone in Japanese blue or “Zlatan!” to someone draped in Swedish yellow and you’ve got a handshake and photo op with a stranger in 10 seconds or less. I know this because I must’ve had at least 30 conversations with Russians that went no further than us saying “Ronaldo! Figo!” back and forth to each other for 30 seconds.

-To this day, I couldn’t tell you a defining characteristic of any international soccer stadium I’ve attended. We Americans are pretty spoiled when it comes to unique sporting venues. Every FIFA game I’ve seen took place in a concrete slab with plastic seats and no cup holders that maybe had a cool exterior façade. But you’re there for the soccer, so who cares.

-One place we are definitely not spoiled is the concession stand price list. I paid the equivalent of $4.80 for a 16 oz. Budweiser (don’t @ me, that was literally the only beer FIFA sold) at a match. And in a souvenir cup! CAN YOU EVEN? I already feel bad for the shellshocked Germans wondering why they need to pay $22 for a craft IPA at MetLife Stadium for the 2026 final.

-This happened outside the stadiums, too. FIFA puts up these Fan Fest outdoor game watch parties in every host city’s big square or park or open space. In Saransk — admittedly the smallest host city — I copped two beers and a burger…for $7.50. At the world’s premiere sporting event. And yet last-place MLB teams will charge you $15+ for a Coors Light. I never wanted to leave.

-I do love that soccer commands your attention unlike any other sport. Hockey comes closest, but still has enough stoppages in play/timeouts to check Twitter and not worry about missing anything big. But for a high-pressure soccer match, you are locked in for 45 straight minutes, get 10 to come up for air, and then you’re right back in the jackpot. It’s almost a shame you pay so much money for a World Cup ticket and it’s all over in under two adrenaline-drenched hours. Remind me I wrote this next time I’m at an August MetsMarlins game tied 0-0 in the 14th at the 5-hour mark.

-Well, as I write this, Portugal prepares for a Round of 16 match against Uruguay. As you read this, they may have already won or lost that game. No matter. I got to personally see my Seleção advance out of the group for the second time in my life. More importantly, I got to watch Ronaldo work magic in person wearing his — our — country’s crest for almost assuredly the last time in his prime. He’s responsible for two of my most indelible sports memories now: the first came when Peak Athletic Ronaldo rampaged down the wing right in front of my seats, faster than seemingly any animal I’d ever seen in person, to take a pass and score an elimination-game winner against the Netherlands at Euro 2012. The second came when, with me muttering under my breath “Por favor Cris” in the 88th minute against Spain two weeks ago, he buried a free kick to equalize that sent me hugging a 70-year-old stranger next to me for what felt like four years. I will never forget either of those moments, so permanently burned into my mind are the details before, during, and after. Which is a long and cheesy way of saying that not only do sports really matter, but that icons and legends and favorite teams do too. Call me lame for being born an American but latching onto my dual nationality for my favorite soccer team. But this is a team that helped me bond with my grandpa. A team that has allowed me to take a once-in-a-lifetime trip with my family…three times. A team that makes me hug 70-year-old strangers. So if you have a chance to see LeBron James in person, do it. If your grandma’s been a Vikings fan for 60 years but’s never gone to a playoff game, take her. Because while outcomes in sports will repeatedly, invariably disappoint you, the memories will never cease to amaze.

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