FIFA World Cup tour diary: Chasing Didier Drogba, taxis playing Bollywood songs and other dilemmas for fans in Russia
The best bits and bobs from the sidelines of the FIFA World Cup 2018 in Russia
MOSCOW: They were going home. In the wee hours of Thursday morning, as a couple of journalists and I waited for what seemed like an eternity to order our ‘dinner’, heads turned towards a group of England fans who were eating their food dutifully. Their favourite song, Football’s Coming Home, was no longer sung, only quiet reflection offered. All the sounds instead came from the Croatian supporters who were sitting not very far from them.
As the English supporters realised, the World Cup can be a hard place once your team bows out. The mood is dampened, but you may still have to stick around if you planned a longer trip in hopeful anticipation. English fans were not the only ones to do this. Even as Moscow put out its best weather for the final few days of the World Cup — sunny and breezy in equal measure — there were too many supporters left wondering what they were still doing here. Their favourite side had left them behind with a bunch of strangers.
These lost fans of the World Cup were joined by the homeless — those who perform the role of a football fan because their country does not find a place in this tournament. So in a final to be played between France and Croatia, we had more people who would have rather watched different teams. The World Cup certainly creates some strange dilemmas.
On the Friday before the final, though, I was battling a quandary as well. As I walked out of my house for the final week of the World Cup — a residence not very far from the Red Square, but in a shape that gave the impression that it predated the Kremlin — I spotted a familiar athletic figure walking at some distance from me. A second passed before I realised it was Didier Drogba! A quick conference with my colleague in the middle of the street was resolved in favour of chasing the man who had a reputation for leaving defenders sprawled in his wake.
But our determination was fierce. As we walked briskly, I checked with my friend if he had a question in mind. He said no; I had no ideas either. Undeterred by our cluelessness, we entered the subway and neared our target. If Drogba misses the competitive edge of European football, we were going to show him what tight marking means. Our steps quickened to ensure that he would not get away from us.
Meanwhile, passers-by shouted, “Didier!” He waved to them, but continued to walk with purpose. Upon emerging from the subway, though, Drogba and his entourage finally stopped to look for their taxi. A hint of doubt and we stepped in like overzealous defenders. There I was, on his right side. I mustered the courage to ask, “Didier, I’m a journalist from India. Would it be possible to speak with you?”
Drogba shook his head in a way that left no doubt about his feelings. He was going to walk away to the taxi that waited for him, and our chance was gone. I still lunged in. “Who is going to win the World Cup, Didier?” Now he spread his arms just like he would to celebrate a goal, but all I got from him was an I-don’t-know. Ho hum.
There were other regrets on the final weekend of the World Cup. Cafes with delightful offerings that were discovered too late, or the metro station closer to the media tribune which we did not know about until the day before the final. All this while my colleagues and I had been walking about thirty minutes to reach our destination! The World Cup must really take a toll on the brain.
But with the tournament drawing to a close, it was the familiar paths and locations that left one feeling a tinge of sadness. With 64 games in 31 days, there is little time to reflect on the impressions that are made on you. The significance dawns upon you too late as I discovered during my final walk to the Luzhniki Stadium. The legs were heavy, the feet pondering every step to a stadium where I covered a third of my matches at the World Cup.
Fortunately, there was still time for bouts of happiness. The media duties lasted a while after the final and France had been a world champion for over two hours by the time manager Didier Deschamps arrived for the press conference. But the start was to be delayed further as the French squad broke through the door to spray him, and some journalists, with water and energy drinks. The name of the coach was sung with gusto, leaving the usually taciturn Deschamps somewhat embarrassed, and the room a mess.
This was another addition to the already extended highlights of the World Cup. But the fun and laughter only amplified the emptiness one feels the day after the final, thousands having left us in the company of overpowering quiet. It was felt sharper because some of the departees were colleagues who had enriched the World Cup through their work and time.
For once, prodded by the demoralising atmosphere, I called an early night. Tuesday was the day to depart from Russia, after all. But as it turned out, there was time enough for one more surprise. My friend and I took a cab to the Sheremetyevo Airport, and halfway through our journey, we could just look at each other and laugh. Kal Ho Naa Ho’s title track emanated from the speaker; our driver from Kyrgyzstan had somehow worked out that we were from India.
His USB drive had more Bollywood songs, many of them very recent. And even though the words escaped the middle-aged man from Bishkek, he insistently hummed along. Hindi film music had featured on this trip earlier as well but a series of familiar songs drove the mind to the most obvious conclusion. It was time to go home.
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