How Foreign World Cup Fans Enchanted Their Russian Hosts: “He Flew Away, But Promised to Return”

Jul 16, 2018 · 11 min read
Portugal fans at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. (Photo: Anton Zaitsev)

I’ve long been a proponent of citizen diplomacy — the potential for ordinary human-to-human contact to build bridges that politicians can’t envision.

That’s one reason I was moved to see this story about how ordinary people in Rostov-on-Don — a Russian city that’s not used to welcoming hordes of foreigners — experienced the arrival of fans from as far afield as Mexico and Uruguay.

I’ve translated the story into English with the author’s kind permission.

Russia isn’t all Vladimir Putin and novichok. Take a look.


This story was written by Svetlana Lomakina and originally published in Russian by TakieDela on June 29, 2018.


No losing weight!

The first ones to appreciate the World Cup’s upsides were the women. Beauty is everywhere in Rostov today: legs, breasts, butts, legs again. We hadn’t been doing badly in this area ourselves, but now there’s definitely a more erotic side. On social media, the ladies post photos with muscular, half-naked hunks: “Finally, my darlings! How we’ve waited for you! Without you, our gene pool was really in trouble!”

Then the zealots of morality come out: “Girls, come to your senses, what about your honor? What will they say about us in Europe? Disgraceful!!”

But as the saying goes: The dogs may bark, but the caravan rides on. Right to the fan zone, of course, where the smell of perfume mixed with beer entices the foreigners into paroxysms of excitement.

Our city’s guests have come to understand that the ladies are ready and willing — but that their English might be a bit lacking. That’s why they’ve learned a few Russian basics: “beautiful,” “let’s go for a walk,” “let’s go on a trip together.” The especially talented have mastered the phrase: “Does your mother need a son-in-law?” Of course she needs one! Of course! Or what are we even doing here?

Our men are no dummies either, and they’ve decided take advantage. Some have bought muslim scarves and now walk along the embankment posing as Arab sheikhs; others have put on bright t-shirts and are trying to pass their Dagestani dialects off as Portuguese.

As it turns out, since the fall of the Iron Curtain, it’s become harder to tell our men apart from the foreigners. But it’s still possible — the hunters have developed some strategies.

Like Lena, for example. I have to admit that when I met her in the fan zone, I didn’t recognize my old friend right away, with her bright lipstick, low neckline, a skirt the size of a kitchen towel, and heels by Louboutin.

“Look at that one, with the beard. He’s either one of our hipsters or one of their fans,” she babbles. “But you can tell them apart by their reactions. Watch this.”

Lena smiles at the bearded Mr. X and struts on by. His head starts to match the rhythm of her hips, and he blushes. A sure sign of a foreigner — our guys don’t react like this.

When Lena “accidentally” drops her purse, he rushes to the rescue.

“Oh, thank you!” she exclaims in English. “Photo, please?”

Yes, of course!” the foreigner cries in delight, embracing her for a selfie.

The rest is like clockwork.

The ladies whose high school English is insufficient use Google Translate, which doesn’t always work so well here in Rostov. Those who’ve had enough to drink have trouble selecting the right language. Google ends up addressing the Swiss in Thai, the Brazilians in Turkish.

But these languages lose their main distinctions after the fifth beer, so the conversation partners aren’t too put out. Especially since you can see the most important thing in their eyes.

London is the capital of Great Britain!” says a lady wearing a red dress with an open back.

“Yes!” says a happy-looking man wrapped in an Uruguayan flag. And adds: “London is the capital of Great Britain!

A mutual understanding is quickly reached, and these two — the lady in red and the man who looks like a Spanish sailor — head towards the darker alleys.

I, too, got my share of foreign attention, though I wasn’t aiming for it in the slightest. I wasn’t wearing heels, nor any kind of special outfit. But how he stared! How he stared, this tanned little man in a Brazilian football kit! His eyes reflected an eternity of anticipation.

Russian?” he asked at last.

Yes. Can I help you?” I answered in English.

The man was exactly half my height. I could have taken him in my arms and rocked him like a child, especially since he looked so miserable: there was no line of girls lining up to meet him, and this was causing him unbearable heartache.

Would you like to go to a restaurant?” he suggested. I understood that if I refused untactfully, the little man would start crying. Judging by their shows, you can do that in Brazil.

“Thank you, but I can’t. I’m on a diet,” I said gently, preserving the fan’s vulnerable soul. On his face, bewilderment was replaced by indignation.

“No losing weight! Russian women are big! Beautiful! Don’t lose weight! I’ll take you to Rio de Janeiro and be proud of you!”

Oh, my gods! Where have you been all my life, Pedro? Who else in my country would tell a woman of thirty-odd years that she is young and beautiful, that seventy kilograms is the best possible weight, and that one can be proud of her? No, Pedro, no… You came too late. My bridges are burned. I’ll stay in my city, I’ll live out my life however fate decides. And you have other options, Pedro. Go look around, take action! Pedro looked around and, it seems, actually did start to cry.

The Scene on the Balcony

There were other stories too. For example, the one that happened to Natalia Ivanovna.

She hadn’t been sleeping well. The days were hot and seemed endless. The evenings brought coolness, but still seemed to warm you like a stove, covering you with something sticky.

Natalia Ivanovna tossed and turned on her orthopedic mattress. Then she threw on her robe and went out onto the balcony. Suddenly she heard: “Where can I buy an apple?” Or rather: “Et où acheter des pommes?”

Natalia Ivanovna is a French teacher. For almost thirty years she worked in a school, then as a tutor. She even lived in Paris for several years. That’s why she not only speaks, but sometimes even thinks in French — and why she didn’t immediately realize that hearing the language on a Rostov midnight was unusual.

“Oh yes, the World Cup!” she realized. The trio who wanted apples were still looking around, standing under her balcony.

“Je peux vous offrir des pommes?” yelled Natalia Ivanovna politely from her third floor apartment.

She knows how to yell politely, and also how to make an offer that’s hard to refuse. The French were stunned, searching for the source of the voice, and when they finally saw the babushka on the balcony, they were even more surprised: Meeting someone on a Rostov midnight who would perfectly understand them was a great stroke of luck.

They talked for a long time, right under Natalia Ivanovna’s balcony. She put on her glasses, gave the Swiss fans (not French, after all) a bag of apples on a string, then offered some chocolates and halva. She didn’t dare invite three adult men to tea. With her seventy-three years, she’s already unmarried. She had her reputation, after all.

When the Swiss left, they promised to come again tomorrow, wanting to thank Natalya Ivanovna for her hospitality.

“Come, of course,” she answered in French. “Our nights are stuffy, I go to bed late. When you come, shout the password: ‘Apple’ (pomme). And I’ll be right there!”

So the next night, under her balcony, Natalia Ivanovna again had guests. They even brought gifts. She had prepared herself: She read about Switzerland, wrote down conversation topics in a little notebook, made Krasnodar tea in a thermos and, when she heard the password, slipped out into the yard in that very same black dress with a white lace collar that she had worn thirty years ago.

She returned home in the morning, feeling happy and light. As if she were not Natalia Ivanovna, but the Natalie who walked around Montmartre at night with a mustachioed artist forty years ago.

“No, I really must get myself together and go to Paris,” she thought, falling asleep.

“Write on WhatsApp”

The Swiss, the Brazilians, and the English were just a warm-up. The main shock still awaited the Rostovites. It came into town wearing green t-shirts and sombreros — Mexicans! The heroes of the 2018 World Cup — people the city will never forget. They organized street festivals, bathed in fountains, ran naked through the night, drove around on golden convertibles, went after our women and shouted: “Rostov is f-cking awesome!”

“I’ve never had such guests!” complained one hotel owner. “They talk even in their sleep. And they always need something, because they ‘want to do a carnival.’ One needed some ribbons. I directed him to the shopping center. He comes back with a handful of packages, and asks me and my colleague to try it on. What for? Because I’m his mother’s size, and my colleague is his girlfriend’s size. The Mexican bought them gifts and wanted to see how they would fit. So we tried on two dresses, a cloak, a jacket, and a fur hat. The hat was meant for the father-in-law, but for some reason we tried it on anyway. We did categorically refuse to try on the swimsuits.”

So a carnival took place in Rostov, drawing in thousands of citizens, and afterwards some suggested leaving the Mexicans in our country and drafting a petition to put them into power. Falling into the economic depths with music and dancing seems more fun, somehow.

Compared to the Mexicans, the Uruguayans seemed like children: Defenseless and vulnerable. They didn’t know English very well, and we don’t know much Spanish, so the stories about the guys from Uruguay were all over the place. Here’s one of them.

In the middle of the night, two Uruguayans, Samuel and Adriano, appeared on the doorstep of a hostel. The first thing they asked was whether they could leave their things to go to Volgograd.

“To Volgograd?” the administrator exclaimed. “From Rostov to Volgograd it’s five hundred kilometers in a straight line.”

“So far?” the guests were surprised. “We have tickets for the match in Volgograd, and we booked this hostel in Rostov. We need to get to the match.”

“To get to the match tomorrow, you need to leave now,” Elena said. “Maybe better not to risk it? Will you stay?”

“No!” Samuel and Adriano answered in one voice. “I mortgaged my property to come here. We need to go to Volgograd. Do buses go there at night?”

“Only trains. But we’ll think of something.”

And so the administrator calls the guys from Uruguay a taxi. And while they’re waiting for the car, she writes them a note in Russian: “These guys came to the World Cup, they’re going to the match in Volgograd. Please help them! If they get into a difficult situation, call!” And a phone number.

With a note from the hostel, the Uruguayans safely boarded a night train, where they were plied with eggs, cucumbers, and fried chicken. They fell asleep to some stories told by a nearby babushka, of which they of course didn’t understand a word.

In Volgograd, their traveling companion came out with them and showed them how to get to the city center. Then some other people helped them. They returned to Rostov a day later still holding the same note, slightly worse for the wear.

At the end there was an addendum: “They’re good guys, they behaved. When they get there, write us on WhatsApp, we’re worried about them too now. Kirichienko family. Volgograd.” And a phone number.

On the Tractor

But the foreigners had a great time here in Rostov too: They went to the Rostov Sea, night fishing, and day swimming in the Don. The guests said yes to everything.

After our team’s first win, all hell broke loose in the fan zone: Swiss, Uruguayans, British, Germans all shouted unanimously: “Raaasya-vpierod!” The wave of humanity pressed me to a post. There, two guys “from the country” (these are always identifiable in their 90s clothes) and the three Swiss fans were speaking a new kind of football dialect: sign English mixed with Russian.

“Come to us, to Zapadny [the Western district],” said a guy in training pants, pointing in the relevant direction. “To Za-pa-dny. Verstehen?”

“No!” the Swiss smiled.

“Do you know borsch?”

Borsch? Yes!”

Samogon?”

The Swiss man looked puzzled.

“Sa-mo-gon,” explained the local. “This is supervodka!”

“Oh!” the guests nodded in unison. The word vodka had long become a familiar one.

“Come to ours,” the local yelled, hoping that the translation would come through somehow. “We have borsch, samogon, my wife made salted cucumbers yesterday! We have to drink to our team!”

“How will they get to the hotel later?” I asked, pitying the foreigners.

But the Swiss didn’t share my fears. They explained that on the previous day, after a similar invitation, they had visited Chaltyr, an Armenian village twenty kilometers from Rostov. The Swiss know Armenian just as well as the Chaltyr Armenians know English, but their mutual understanding was complete. They ate shashlik, drank wine, and in the morning they were taken to a hotel on a tractor. Why on a tractor, they could not explain.

The Unveiled Woman

Nor could Said, from Saudi Arabia, explain why wanted a hotel room for the wrong dates. But there was indeed an explanation: He had confused Rostov-on-Don with Rostov the Great. While he looked for the stadium in the other Rostov, the booking had expired.

“So he’s knocking on the window at night, looking really miserable,” the administrator told me. ‘Let me in just until morning,’ he said. But we’re all booked. There’s only a closet where we keep buckets and rags and dry the laundry. There was an old Soviet cot. And the foreigner has an Armani bag. His shirt costs more than the plasma TV in our hallway. How can I make such a rich man sleep next to buckets? But he’s pleading and pleading and it looks like he’s about to cry. So I showed him to the cot. He rejoiced like a child, lay down and passed out right away. We moved him to a room in the morning. But then there was another thing: He had lost his migration card. To get another, you have to go to the police station.”

“He stayed in high spirits, which surprised me. He had lost his documents, we’re going to the police, we’re stuck in traffic, and he doesn’t care. At the station they’re taking his fingerprints, taking photos — and he’s still just smiling. So after this story with the migration card was over, I asked him: ‘Said! You’ve had so many problems in Russia in just two days. One of us would just be in despair. And you’re smiling all the time. What’s making you so happy?”

‘Everything,’ said Said. ‘In my country, I couldn’t spend half a day with a young unveiled woman. I couldn’t even look at her. And you’re talking to me! We’re sitting next to each other, driving in the same car! I’ll always remember this as one of my most pleasant memories.’

There are still a few more weeks until the end of the World Cup. Then the time will come to collect the stones, fix the broken benches, paint the destroyed fences, put the hotels in order. But these are trifles. The main thing is that the foreigners liked us — they promised to return.

Ilya Lozovsky

Written by

Managing editor at OCCRP, but these words are just me. Democracy, corruption, US politics, Eurasia. More fun than this profile makes me seem.

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