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FIFA World Cup 2018: Samara, a once-closed Russian city, opens up for football fans and thrives in tournament spotlight

Sergei Leybgrad has a magic room — or at least that is what he calls it. ‘The magic room’ is the sixth room and culmination of the football museum Leybgrad founded and runs downtown Samara. It’s an extraordinary collection of 17,000 artefacts, representing Samara’s relationship with sport at large. The restless Leybgrad, however, exults when he performs a ritual in the magic room, almost praying to the gods of football with the incantation “Football in Samara is more than football!” He leaves the touring fans, both in awe and bemused.

Samara, framed by the Volga and Samara rivers, in the south of Russia, near Kazakhstan, is an inviting and compelling city, one that was closed off for the outside world as a critical hub to Soviet space and aircraft industries. Its history is akin to Nizhny Novgorod — a World Cup host city associated with military secrecy and the exile of dissidents — as a city off-limits to foreigners.

 FIFA World Cup 2018: Samara, a once-closed Russian city, opens up for football fans and thrives in tournament spotlight

Supporters of team Sweden take a selfie as they walk along an embankment in Samara. Reuters

Novgorod remains an enigma, notwithstanding its geographic proximity to Moscow. The city divides, leaving visitors beguiled or bewildered. Samara has simply thrived in the World Cup spotlight, bouncing with energy, projecting its own peculiar image of a genuine football city. It is a stretch to portray Samara as the cradle of Russian football, but the city claims a century-long relationship with the beautiful game. In fact, Samara wanted to host an international tournament, a precursor of modern-day World Cup, in 1918, or so tales of old have it. Hosting didn’t require much and Samara expressed an interest, but history decided otherwise with the Russian Revolution and World War I curtailing any of those ambitions.

Samara’s role in the global game has ever since been very modest. Krylia Sovetov, “Wings of the Soviets,” play in the local topflight. The club won promotion back to the Russian Premier League for the 2018-19 season and will permanently switch from their Metallurg Stadium to the World Cup stadium, but they have never recorded victories of note.

In the build-up to the tournament, the Samara Arena was a venue of great concern for both FIFA and the local organisers, the construction repeatedly hit by setbacks, but the venue staged six matches of the World Cup immaculately, including Uruguay’s 3-0 demolition of the hosts and Brazil’s high-speed, knock-out encounter with Mexico. In tropical temperatures, the Latin fans conquered Samara and its spaceship-like stadium.

General view inside the Samara Arena before the Sweden vs England quarter-final. This stadium hosted six matches of the World Cup. Reuters

General view inside the Samara Arena before the Sweden vs England quarter-final. This stadium hosted six matches of the World Cup. Reuters

In the post-USSR era, the importance of space and aviation industries have declined in the city. The local industry has changed, with a focus on metallurgy, chemicals and plastics. The space museum highlights Samara's role at the centre of Russia's attempt to put a man on the moon and enabled Yuri Gagarin to reach outer space in 1961. During the World Cup the theme has been tweaked a little bit, with references to the global game: the official World Cup ball, Telstar, is named after a communications satellite and photos of Yuri Gagarin playing football are on display. Local, Japanese, Indian and English fans showed an interest.

Downtown, a nondescript door with no handle is the back entrance to an anonymous tenement block. Locals and visitors never made much of it, but in 1991 the innocent entrance was revealed to be a nuclear bunker, built as Joseph Stalin's last refuge. With two shafts and a depth of 40 meters the bunker can withstand a 1,500 kiloton demolition.

As the Germans advanced and the spectre of Moscow falling into enemy hands loomed large, the USSR’s State Defense Committee considered moving the capital to Samara, but that never transpired. Neither did Stalin ever need to enter the bunker, a complex, 192 steps down, with fake windows and fake doors. The tour guides jokes that ‘if you take the wrong door, you will be shot.’

The irreverence is striking, but the football fans, listening, appreciate the joke. It’s been a strange week for Stalin’s bunker in Samara. At the start of the week Mexicans and Brazilians fans visited; by the end, English and Swedish supporters arrived. The once-closed city has opened up to the world and its communist past is an asset in that respect, not just as a curiosity, but also as a bridge between old and new, and two different worlds.

Click here for full coverage of FIFA World Cup 2018

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Updated Date: Jul 08, 2018 14:54:05 IST