FIFA World Cup 2018: France, Croatia return to familiar venue as colourful Russia prepares to offer final goodbye

Moscow: The slow walk to the end is on its final steps. As one traversed the streets of Moscow over the past couple of days, the dying sparks of a party that has lasted a month could be seen. There are not that many visitors left, and those who are still around are dazed by what they have witnessed. But there is still another celebration to be had before the curtain drops down.

By any measure, this has been just the kind of festivity Russia had hoped it would see. The smoothest of rides, a party which has smoothened many rough edges. The fears which existed before the World Cup have shown to be overstated, even though they are no less important now. The commentary in western media tends to exaggerate fears in the context of Russia. If there is one lesson to this World Cup, it is that we should take those arguments with a pinch of salt.

France play Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow for Sunday’s World Cup final at 8.30 pm

FIFA World Cup 2018: France, Croatia return to familiar venue as colourful Russia prepares to offer final goodbye

Croatia fans celebrate at the Luzhniki Stadium after their team's win over England in semi-final of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. AFP

The issue at hand is not that nothing happened at the World Cup; nothing ever goes wrong, after all. But the perception of a closed Russian society which holds a special distrust of the foreigner has been shown up for its unsubstantiated basis. Locals have welcomed the visitors warmly; the decision to use fan IDs in the place of a tourist visa, and free public transport for all made the experience of the World Cup even more convenient.

According to the official figures, nearly three million tickets were distributed while seven million people visited the fan fests – a figure which transcended the mark set in Brazil four years ago. Hosting a World Cup, of course, is not just about the tournament and ‘legacy’ has constantly featured in conversations over the past month. It remains uncertain, though, whether the 11 billion USD spent by Russia will deliver on its promises as stadiums without clubs and cities without serious inflow of tourists face uncertain futures.

However, any apprehensions are brushed below the carpet for now. The festivities for the final day will take center stage, with a short closing ceremony to precede the match between France and Croatia. Among the highlights will be Germany’s World Cup winning skipper Philipp Lahm, who will carry the World Cup trophy on to the pitch in the company of Russian model Natalia Vodianova.

Although the Luzhniki Stadium is expected to be sold out on Sunday, there has been a discernible drop in intensity since the quarterfinals. This can be attributed to the South American countries not having a memorable World Cup, even as their fans turned out in record numbers. Supporters from European nations tend to dominate this figure but the World Cup in Russia brought a new shift.

The arrival of more people from the Global South enlivened the colour and sounds of the tournament. Even when their favourite teams struggled, the Latin American fans’ cheery demeanour and musical disposition were integral to the World Cup festivities. It was a shame that they could not stay any longer.

Once the semis arrived, their absence was sorely felt. Although the English fans kept everyone entertained by incessantly singing their greatest hits, those from France, Belgium, and Croatia have been relatively muted. Even as a World Cup final stood on the horizon, we only had quiet anticipation.

But the final weekend of this festival did bring more opportunities to interact with locals. Sadly, the chatter was accompanied by a feeling of the impending goodbye. Following the World Cup over a month demands the utmost physical and mental effort from those involved and that weariness is palpable too. Of course, everyone will be able to rouse themselves again on Sunday but the end is in sight.

Before the inevitable conclusion arrives, though, there is time to recall the memories which stand out in this memorable tournament. Luzhniki Stadium, the venue for the final, serves as an appropriate site to relive them.

Here it was, 31 days ago, that Russia suggested there was more to the host than mere brittleness as it thrashed Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the World Cup opener. Three days later, Germany’s demoralising campaign got off to a shock start as Mexico enthralled in a narrow win. A fortnight later, the Luzhniki was the venue for Russia’s biggest triumph as it won in a penalty shootout over Spain. And only three nights ago, Croatia completed another of its incredible comebacks here to reach its maiden World Cup final.

On Sunday, the Croats return to make history at the stadium which has already experienced seismic developments in this tournament. France will also be looking to have more joy than it managed when the soul-crushing goalless draw with Denmark was played out at the Luzhniki twenty days ago. Both sides in the final are already familiar with the venue, if not the setting of a World Cup final. Soon they will know how that feels too before Russia offers them its final goodbye.

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Updated Date: Jul 15, 2018 11:57:34 IST

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