Against all propaganda of racism and hostile negativity, the 2018 FIFA World Cup ended last night here in Russia with fanfare as France defeated Croatia 4-2 to win Les Blues second title.
The host country put up a showpiece that matched, perhaps, the best of the Mundial that the world has seen in recent time. For us visitors to Russia, this World Cup here has opened our eyes. Now we know better when any one is talking negatively about the Russian people. It has been 32 days of unforgettable football experience, moving from one beautiful city to another. Russia 2018 will remain a memory to treasure, just like the 2010 edition Africa hosted for the first time in Mandela's country, South Africa.
Twenty-four hours to yesterday's closing ceremony, top officials of the next host in four years, Qatar, gave thumb up to the Russian LOC for putting up a great spectacle during the 28 days of total football showpiece. Now that Russia has lifted the bar, Qatar2022 will have no choice but strive to match the efficiency exhibited here at Russia 2018.
Right from the point of entry at the Pulkovo Airport into St Petersburg on June 13, this reporter was welcomed into Russia by adoring volunteers. Some of us who had read so much western media propaganda against Russia took such smiles and open arms from the volunteers with a pinch of salt. We were sort of edgy and did all we could to be on the watch. Not even similar friendly welcome from warm hotel staff at the Park Inn by Radisson Pribaltiyskaya could disarm that impression of racism drummed into us. But after just two days in that beautiful city of skyscrapers, it became obvious that all that we have been fed with were mere lies, aimed at painting a terrible image of the Russian people. Nigerians and other nationals began to open open to Russians and enjoy all that was available to savour.
From Moscow to St Petersburg, Kazan, Volgograd, Kaliningrad, Ekaterinburg, Sochi, Saransk, Samara, Rostov-On-Don and Nizhny Novgorod, the story of friendliness was all the same. Supporters from all the continents, coaches, footballers and their back room staff are all saying that what they witnessed here during the Mundial is totally different from the pictures of Russia painted before visitors arrived here.
One of the stand-out feature that made Russia 2018 different was the introduction of Fan ID that made it easier for visitors to have easy passage here.
Visitors to Russia applied for a laminated Fan ID photo card to bypass entry visa rules. The process also allowed Russian authorities to screen people considered to be a security threat, and monitor who entered stadiums. Some saw the ID system as a data protection risk, yet many fans embraced their laminates as though members of a World Cup club. The ID gave visitors a special privilege which the locals were ever willing to assist when the need arises. Of course, like in any society bad eggs took advantage to fleece unsuspecting visitors of their hard earned money and personal effects. Such reports were insignificant when compared with the hundreds of thousands of visitors that flocked Russian cities to be part of the football show.
For Nigerian and African fans here, the World Cup ended for us long time ago when none of the five teams from the continent could make it out of the group stage. Of course, not to that we were expecting any miracle of a sort happening, we had expected at least one or two to make it to the second round and may be , the quarter, like Ghana did at South Africa 2010. But after they all crashed, we had no choice to adopt countries featuring our 'black brothers' like France, Belgium and England.
If football aficionados here were not taken by surprise the spectacular performance of host Russia, this reporter was. I had nursed the fears that the stadia may no longer enjoy full patronage once Russia crash out at the group stage. The hosts finished ahead of several more glamorous names, such as Germany, Argentina, Portugal and Spain - beaten by Russia on penalties in the Round of 16 -, while Brazil and Uruguay were knocked out at the same stage.
"I'm grateful to the players for this tournament," Russian head coach Stanislav Cherchesov said the morning after the team crashed out.
"Fifty days have flown by like one. Thanks to the fans as well, it's down to them that we got so far. We didn't have any standout players, it was the team that stood out. All 23 players deserve respect, they all gave it their all. Only by working hard can we get people to believe in us and love us. Now the whole country knows what kind of national team they have. I hope we've changed attitudes for the better," concludes the Russian manager.
For fans without tickets, the Fan Fests scattered all over the 11 host cities were the perfect place to be. They provided the entertainment like no other. There were vibrant presence of fans mostly from Argentina, Peru, Mexico, Croatia and others. Fans made friends with other nationalities and even locals. Of course, some new affairs of the hearts were sealed in some of the Fan Fests. It will not be too long for the world to begin to hear of marriages whose beginning started here in Russia. Russia was truly a lovely place for the Mundial.
Till four years time when the world will gather in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup, it has been a wonderful time out here chronicling events from Day One for THISDAY Newspaper titles. To our partner, MultiChoice Nigeria Limited whose DSTV sports pay television channel made the trip possible, we say a BIG THANK YOU.