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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 19 July 2018

John McAuley's World Cup diary: Fans in Russia have been amazing - and so has Google Translate

The National's football reporter reflects on his time in Russia so far - which has involved plenty of travel and some lovely homemade jam

Nikolskaya Street in central Moscow has been transformed into a mini World Cup of fans. Felipe Trueba / EPA
Nikolskaya Street in central Moscow has been transformed into a mini World Cup of fans. Felipe Trueba / EPA

Wonderful, wonderful technology

I probably don’t say it enough. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever said it before, but God bless Google. God bless its search engine, God bless its Maps, and especially God bless its Translate. In Russia, it has become my best friend, more valuable than my credit card, more reassuring than the heavier-than-usual police presence and more comforting than the bed I spent the first six nights in and then missed for the next seven. For the uninitiated or the criminally lazy (I realise I straddle both), Translate has been a lifesaver.

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More from 2018 World Cup:

WATCH: Lionel Messi sits out training as Argentina prepare for clash with France

Day 15 updates: Germany reaction, Maradona 'angry', England take on Belgium

Podcast: Messi finally comes through as World Cup knockout stages take shape

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Hosts with the most

The first week in Moscow was spent at an apartment owned by architects Marina and Ivan, and Dodo, their sausage dog. I was collected at the train station, given a rail card and handed a detailed list of things to do in Moscow, including recommended restaurants. There were house rules, too, such as no loud music, shouting or loud disputes after 10pm. All arguments to take place early doors, then. The best bit, though? Marina left in the fridge a pot of her homemade jam. A sure-fire hit should the architect business go belly up.

Party on Nikolskaya street

The first few days felt distinctly non-World Cup. Accreditation was collected at the Luzhniki Stadium (at the second time of asking – Moscow’s maze-like metro system scuppered plans the previous day), but other than that, Russia didn’t seem in the mood for the greatest tournament on Earth. Then I ventured to Nikolskaya Street. There, it was a mini World Cup of fans, with supporters from Peru, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Saudi Arabia and Egypt singing, dancing and generally having a good time, mixing and merrymaking. And all right next to Red Square. Finally, the World Cup had arrived.

Trains, trains and, well, trains

You might have heard, but Russia is a pretty big place. So vast, in fact, that travel to all 11 host cities this month has been almost impossible. But still, Fifa have provided free travel on public transport to fans and media. That means lengthy train journeys between Moscow, St Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod and the highlight: a delightful 25-hour trek from Volgograd. With four to a cabin, your travel companions can make or break the trip. Thankfully, then, I had a like-minded Scottish journalist and Khalid and Walid, two affable, football-loving Egyptians. And only one snored throughout the night. Result.

Happy Birthday, Mo

OK, it wasn’t the greatest World Cup for Mohamed Salah. The Egyptian King didn’t exactly reign in Russia, but that didn't quell the love and affection sent his way by the thousands of compatriots who journeyed to Russia. Salah shirts are everywhere, from replica Egypt jerseys to homemade incarnations. For those who couldn’t get a ticket for the opener against Uruguay, Moscow Fan Fest became the place to be. Salah didn’t play, but on his birthday, and the first day of Eid, a large and loud band of Egyptians serenaded him in both English and Arabic. Lovely.

La, la, la, Messi... Maradona

The best thing about a World Cup? The gathering of people from all around the world. The colour, the camaraderie. Mexico’s fans have been amazing, Peru’s and Brazil’s too. Yet Argentines occupying the promenade in Nizhny Novgorod will take some beating. They sang, they shouted, they hoisted locals on their shoulders. The ditty celebrating both Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi (tough life) has provided my soundtrack to the tournament. In truth, it’s too catchy. Whistling it subconsciously on a metro full of Brazilians is probably not advised.

National pride stirs the soul

Little wonder Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar and Marcelo and whoever else you’ve spotted as the camera pans past brim from ear-to-ear. It doesn’t shock that Javier Hernandez was almost moved to tears. Being swept along on top of your national anthem as thousands belt it back at you must offer one of the greatest life-affirming experiences for a footballer. Mexico in the Luzhniki before their clash with Germany? Spine-tingling. Argentina or Iceland at the Spartak Stadium? Eardrum piercing. Russia and Egypt at the Krestovsky? Heart-pounding. If this was simply the group stage, image the final. Just imagine.

White, blue and red night in Saint Petersburg

The White Nights in Saint Petersburg are famed. After a few hours of darkness, the sun begins to rise, lighting up this beautiful city. The sight of Russians in its centre, waving giants flags and blaring car horns as the sun came up following a 3-1 victory against Egypt that sealed a last-16 spot, will be difficult to forget. Not that you’d want to. The Russians’ hospitality has been memorable, too. From jam-making hosts in Moscow, to the everywhere and enviously energetic volunteers, to passers-by eager to help the blatantly lost and confused. Russia has been a treat.