The Soccer Experience of a Lifetime

When I walked onto the campus of Furman University in the late summer of 1969, you would have had a hard time convincing me that I would be at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow watching the World Cup final in 49 years.  I chose that small Southern Baptist school over Wake Forest and the University of Virginia because I wanted to play football.  After a semester of hard work and injuries, I made the right decision and quit.  Fortunately for me, Furman’s soccer team was not of the highest quality and their coach asked me to try out the following fall.  Not only did I begin to like the sport, I also was attracted to Russian studies thanks to a dynamic professor.  I took Russian my junior year and did my senior thesis on 3 Russian novels reading them in the back of the Daniel library during an unusually cold winter.  I thought briefly about joining the foreign service but quickly decided to avoid that difficult track and became a teacher.

Fortunately for me in the summers after graduation I hooked up with the Washington Sports Club Bavarians – an excellent club team with a great reputation in the area.  When they traveled to England in 1975, I was asked to join them and my transformation to soccer fanatic was completed.  Watching the Charity Shield match between West Ham and Derby County in Wembley was the clincher.  I had never seen such passion on display (in some cases a bit too much passion) for soccer.  I was lucky enough to go again with the Bavarians 2 years later to both England and Germany where I saw, for the first time, soccer on TV.  When I got back, I began watching that iconic hour long TV show “Soccer Made in Germany.”

I first thought about going to the World Cup in Mexico in 1986 but the birth of our daughter in September made that impossible.  However, my wife, son and I went to the 1990 World Cup in Italy and I made it, as much as financially possible, part of my travel plans in the future.  Going to the quarterfinals in Palto Alto in 1994 and the World Cup in France in 1998, completed a decade of soccer passion.  Unfortunately, finances and family conflicts left me out of World Cup attendance for three straight cycles.  However, I got back into it in 2014 in Brazil.  We attended three games – one at the iconic Maracana and 2 in Belo Horizonte.  The highlight of that trip was watching Brazil beat Chile in PK’s in the round of 16.  The passion and love for the sport on display that day was something I will never forget.

I had thought briefly about the possibility of attending the final match but was not sure I could afford it.  However, when Russia was awarded the World Cup in 2010, I began to think seriously about it.  The trip to Brazil cinched my commitment and I began planning for it after my retirement in 2015.

After a long flight from Charlotte to Munich and then to Moscow we landed at Domodedovo Airport at 3:30 in the afternoon Thursday, July 12.  After passing through customs and getting our Fan ID’s we finally saw our driver who took us to our hotel in downtown Moscow.  We didn’t waste any time and walked to the Bolshoi and the Metropol hotel as well as taking a glimpse of Red Square.  On the way there we stopped to take pictures of the large “soccer balls” adorned with the images of the big names of soccer.  Maybe as a sign of things to come I took a picture of the ball with Pogba’s picture on it.  We finally retired after a great dinner for some much needed sleep.

Our first full day in Russia was indeed full as we walked to legendary Gorky Park passing by huge statues to Vladimir I and Peter the Great on the way.  While in the park, we went to the eccentric Garage Museum of Contemporary Art and had a drink at the Strelka Bar on the way back.  This was one of the venues where World Cup games had been shown on a huge TV.

Day 3 was also full of walking, mostly in the area around Red Square.  In the middle of the square was the fan fest where you could strike PK’s at a moving goalkeeper, enter a dribbling contest and much more.  Soccer wise, one of the highlights was a visit to the Fox Soccer booth right behind St. Basil’s cathedral where Alexi Lalas was talking with these guys who were taking selfies with him.  Not being a big fan, I decided not to bug him with more requests for pictures.  We also went into the huge GUM department store which wasn’t really a store but a huge mall.  There was a history of the World Cup in displays throughout the mall and we took plenty of pictures and, of course, bought souvenirs.  We then walked to the John Donne (Джон Дон in Cyrillic) pub to watch the boring third place game between England and Belgium retiring to our hotel after dinner not sure I could sleep much given the excitement of the next day.

After a great breakfast, we took off for a morning walk to the Arbat – a pedestrian only street with lots of shops and cafes.  There were plenty of Croatian fans celebrating early in anticipation of what they hoped would be their first World Cup final win.  We also passed a statue of Gogol, the great 19th century dramatist.  The Russians are rightfully proud of their artistic history, with statues to Dostoevsky (in the front of the national library) and Pushkin (in front of his museum) among many others.  We got back to the hotel and boarded our bus for the trip to Luzhniki stadium.  Although we parked a good bit away from the stadium, I didn’t care as I was going to the World Cup final!

Outside the stadium there was a plethora of souvenir shops, a music pavilion and soccer games.  As soon as we passed through security I immediately bought the beer on sale it seems everywhere – Budweiser.  Quality beer was not my favorite part of the trip.  It was in cups that had little blinking lights on the bottom that, when I was watching earlier games, made it look like the beer was almost pinkish in color.  We walked up several flights of stairs to our seats in the corner of the stadium.  I had decided not to waste money on a category one seat knowing that for the final the best ones were taken long before I got mine.  I couldn’t stop taking pictures and talking to the people around us from it seems everywhere in the world.  Will Smith was the headline act before the game along with plenty of fireworks and dancing.

By the time the whistle sounded for the opening kickoff, I was 4 beers into the game and still couldn’t believe where I was – and what a game it was!  There was VAR (on the handball by Mandzukic) and an own goal.  Unfortunately, I had to text my son to get his take on the handball as the 2 screens in the stadium were ridiculously small.  We were in the side of the stadium dominated by Croatian fans who loudly cheered on their team the whole game.  There were 2 great goals by Pogba and Mbappe and a stoppage for 4 members of Pussy Riot who ran onto the field.  It was weird that one of the songs on my playlist that I listened to on the way to Moscow was their song “Police State.”  This disruption along with the lack of preparedness for the downpour that followed the game made me question a bit Russian security.  As the rain came down and Putin, Macron and Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović got completely soaked (the umbrellas came out finally but they were too late), I was treated to one more great moment that could only happen in the “gentleman’s game.”  Mbappe, and several of the members of “Les Blues” walked to our side of the field and applauded the Croatian fans who cheered back.

We missed the fireworks display after the game as we didn’t want to be left behind.  Even though it was still raining, I didn’t care as I had been to the pinnacle of the soccer world and still had 2 weeks left in Russia.  The bucket list had one less stop on it.