FIFA World Cup 2018: For ardent fans, Russia’s free trains become melting pot of cultures and home on wheels

At the end of it all, a golden glow is all that remains. Not that many notice the soothing colours of the Russian night sky, among the thousands of pine trees which remain so quiet and almost introverted, as the train gently meanders its way across the vastness of the motherland. In the dimly-lit restaurant carriage, a smothering of passengers — Argentineans ponder a meeting with France, Nigerians lament the elimination — peer out of the window. The glow is but one of their fascinations. The mist, the endless forest, the picturesque wooden houses and the pleasant sentiment of observing these curiosities delight the onlooker.

But then these observers didn’t come for the beauty of Russian nature. They delight not so much in the local wildlife, but in the vision, so far, of the new Russia. They are here for the ‘Championat’, the World Cup. In their light white and blue shirts, Argentineans, vastly outnumbering their Nigerian counterparts, mingle and welcome fans, from all ethnicities, from around the globe.

Senegal take on Colombia while Japan face Poland at 7.30 pm on Thursday while England face Belgium and Panama take on Tunisia at 11.30 pm in the second set of matches on Day 15

 FIFA World Cup 2018: For ardent fans, Russia’s free trains become melting pot of cultures and home on wheels

Football fans for the 2018 World Cup boarding a train in Saransk. AFP

It’s one of the great and untouched beauties of this tournament: the free trains which zig-zag around — and crisscross — Russia, throughout and during the four weeks of elite football. Those trains don’t just connect the railways in Russia; in 2018 they also connect the world and the visiting fans. Indeed, those supporters, with scarfs, with paintings, and in shirts, have come from every nook and corner of the world. Egyptians, Saudi Arabians, Brazilians, Spaniards and Tunisians have all found a home on wheels, along the many Russian fans, who have had a marked presence.

The local ask questions, demonstrating a kind curiosity: did you go to the Champions League final in Kiev? Which matches are you attending in Russia? Often the internet signal drops as the train carries everyone through the Russian hinterland. The home fans offer beer and vodka, chuckle as foreigners struggle with the language and smoke, risking a fine of 1,500 rubles. They still like ice hockey better, but new-found heroes Aleksandr Golovin and Denis Cheryshev have Russian fans enamoured with the beautiful game.

By 6 am, all the singing, chanting and dancing has died down, even from the Argentina fans, who so vociferously backed their team in St Petersburg with a romance of the olden days — or 2014 to be precise: “Brazil, tell me how you are feeling…Maradona is better than Pele.”

At the dawn, trains have a life of their own, the scenario repeated in orderly fashion for those who sojourn for football: the cabins are locked, fans snoozing and snoring. In the corridors, the train personnel, at times patient, at times a bit abrasive, clean and vacuum the carpet. The attendants work in solitude.

In many ways, adventurers prefer the rails, a combination of exploration and discomfort over the shorter luxury version of a flight that brings so much certainty and the dullness of modern travelling. Trains are equipped with WiFi, plugs and a restaurant carriage, but above all they offer easy travel, comfort and friendship, the ultimate bonding experience on wheels.

The local organisers have 736 trains running during the tournament, the 32 squads have brought as many players. From the capital to the far-off enclave of Kaliningrad, from Rostov-on-Don to Volgograd across the southern steppe, the railways have become a melting pot of cultures. The yellow and blue Brazilians have a lot of schadenfreude about ‘Messy’, the Tunisians lament what could have been, the Russians delight in the performance of the ‘Sbornaya.’

There is, it can’t be forgotten, a profound connection between the World Cup hosts and trains: Dr Zhivago and the illustrious Trans-Siberian express spring to mind. All the commuting — or long distance travelling, depending on one’s point of view — offers a window into Russia, the new Russia, the World Cup version, as presented by head of state Vladimir Putin — and a problematic one at that: Russia has plenty of problems, but, even amid the sanitised version of reality — the volunteers and the train personnel who go to great lengths to help visitors — there is a sense that Russians want this not to be a FIFA-branded charade, but a fest of genuine generosity, a peek into their soul, allowing an understanding of the mythic motherland and dispensing the stereotype of the ‘gruff’ monolithic Russian. Even Russia’s non-football fans have embraced the tournament.

In the end, the trains deliver an authentic experience. As Ashoke Lalikwa from Lagos lay in his bunk — his son Ashoke Jr was in the upper bunk — on the way to St Petersburg, he needn’t ponder much about the joy of train travelling. He said: “It is unique, it’s comfortable and free. It builds friendships as we all live in hope of winning.”

At the time, Ashoke didn’t know he was heading for defeat, but that’s part of the journey.

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Updated Date: Jun 28, 2018 16:30:27 IST