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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 13 November 2018

'What matters is the celebration in Russia': Locals unimpressed by home team but excited about World Cup 2018

Moscow is in celebratory mood, as singing, chanting and dancing ricochets around in Kremlin's shadow

On Nikolskaya Street, beneath the speckled lights that guide the way to Red Square and under the rain, Moscow hummed and heaved, finally, to the sound of the World Cup.

A giant clock counted down to Thursday’s match between hosts Russia and their opponents Saudi Arabia, the beginning of a first global finals to take place in the country. A global finals in which Russia hopes to parade itself to the world as a modern Russia, progressive and inclusive.

On that night, everyone felt as one. Moscow was in celebratory mood, in this section of this sprawling city at least, as singing, chanting and dancing ricocheted around in the shadow of the Kremlin.

The Peru fans were lively and loud, with their inflatable llamas and countless flags. This is Peru’s first appearance at the tournament in 36 years, so understandably the supporters of the last team to qualify for Russia want to make a lasting impression.

They had competition up and down the thronging street, from the Egyptians dressed as pharaohs and tooting horns, to the Mexicans buried beneath sombreros or hiding behind lucha libre masks. Hiding in plain sight, happy for all the world to see.

There were Argentines everywhere as well, banging drums, perched high on street signs, with homemade placards plastered across walls.

They crowed about Lionel Messi, a taunt to their Brazilian rivals, who ceased crooning about Gabriel Jesus so they could respond with their own version of that Messi ditty, one less complimentary to perhaps the greatest player at this World Cup and any that have gone before.

There were those who had travelled from Saudi Arabia, less conspicuous, but only because they were swallowed by the colour and the clamour. Still, they waved plastic flags, draped themselves in green flags.

Yousef Sharif, a business coach based in Jubail, came with his brother and four sons, never thinking he would witness in person his country at a World Cup. He smiled at the welcome commotion around him.

“It's really something we did not expect at all," Sharif said. “It’s very, very special. This is the holy month for us; usually we stay home. Tomorrow is our Eid celebrations. So we hope we have two Eid celebrations: that Saudi will win the first match and we have our Eid.”

His son Adnan agreed.

“I have never lived moments like this,” he said, as thoughts drifted towards the national anthem blared out at the Luzhniki Stadium for all to hear. “I don’t live it yet, but it will be something indescribable. Indescribable.”

Hany Toma, an Egyptian pharmacist born and raised in the United States, was not so lost for words. Dressed as a pharaoh and agreeing to an endless stream of selfies, he will watch his country against Uruguay and Russia, then skydive in Saint Petersburg.

“There’s about 100 of us, we met on the Egyptian Facebook page,” Toma screamed above the racket. “So it’s not just about soccer. It’s about Egyptians from all over the world, hanging out. From Egypt, USA, Gulf area.

“Since 1990, we didn’t make the World Cup. But now our dreams come true, so I can’t wait. I hope we qualify every time.”

Some hope more than others. While visitors look forward to the next four weeks with excitement, the natives are not so much. As the lowest-ranked team at the tournament, genuine optimism for Russia seems only for the foolhardy and the few.

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Read more on World Cup 2018:

World Cup 2018 at Russia's doorstep but no sign of winter ending for home team

Russia determined 'to turn criticism to positive feedback' amid woes

Guides, predictions, podcasts, galleries and where to watch in UAE

10 Golden Boot contenders beyond Messi and Ronaldo

In pictures: How the home kits are ranked

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On Wednesday, The Moscow Times front page carried the headline: “Aging [sic] and inexperienced: Why Russia is doomed to fail”. Inside, it questioned whether Stanislav Cherchesov’s side are the worst in the country’s history.

Not all Russians are apathetic, although that sentiment is said to be prevalent. On Wednesday, Cherchesov quipped: “I think half the country will only find out we are hosting a World Cup tomorrow… we want to show we are worthy of hosting such a large-scale tournament.”

The majority wishes that the World Cup is remembered for the right reasons, not for Russia’s long-standing issues with racism or hooliganism. Groups have been warned against violence by the government, with the police presence thickened.

However, a state-funded poll claimed 74 per cent of Russians held a positive view about hosting the US$10.7 billion (Dh39.3bn) World Cup.

Julia Bryansk, a student at Moscow Technology University, working this month as an official volunteer, was one such soul.

“I can’t find the words to explain this incredible celebration,” she said as she walked along Nikolskaya Street, eyes wide. “It’s so cool.”

She laughed when asked if the success of the World Cup is dependent on the success of its host team.

“I think no. They’re so bad at football. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is the celebration in Russia. It’s a big, fantastic time for us. So many people here from outside.

"It’s special for me; special for us.”