From Russia with love and a World Cup lament! –

There should be a real World Cup now. I wish there were.

Instead, we’ve got an ersatz release coming just to coincide with this year’s Black Friday sale, which is handy for those looking to grab a bargain. Blaupunkt TV in time for Ecuador against Senegal, but miserable for everyone.

For the detached observer, there are depressing themes common to the next World Cup and the last, Russia in 2018. Both were awarded to candidates with abysmal human rights records and dubious geopolitical ambitions, amid an all-powerful stench of corruption.

But, for those of us who feel incapable of being detached observers – who insist on our enjoyment of top-flight professional football even while feeling embarrassed by its monstrousness, who know that cognitive dissonance is the norm – the two tournaments could hardly be more different. Russia 2018 was everything a World Cup should be: summer carnival, cultural exchange and feast for the senses. Anyway, it was a joy. Qatar will be a bland simulacrum, a charmless envelope, disguised as a World Cup.

The population of Qatar – not counting migrant/expatriate workers (who wouldn’t claim to be Qatari) is 313,000, less than a third of County Durham’s. Don’t expect a rich cultural exchange. The depressing fact that 6,500 migrant workers died building stadiums in Qatar is made even more depressing by the fact that the stadiums themselves are utterly useless, white elephants that will almost certainly be three-quarters empty for most matches. . The football will be real, but the experience will be virtual.

I loved Russia. I was lucky enough to go with my father, who had long insisted that if Egypt qualified for a World Cup, we would go together. It was the first World Cup in Egypt in 28 years, and dad kept his word. We went. And although Hector Cuper’s ultra-negative tactics caused us to lose all three matches – against Uruguay in Ekaterinburg, against Russia in Saint Petersburg and against Saudi Arabia in Volgograd – and we were the first team to fly home (a national disgrace: we didn’t think we were there to catch up), my two weeks in Russia were a time I will never forget and always remember fondly .

I’ll never forget singing the Egyptian national anthem with dad – a 67-year-old man wearing pharaonic makeup and hairdo – at this odd temporary stand in Yekaterinburg. Egyptians don’t hide their feelings, and there were a lot of tears all around us. That moment, as we sang”Bilady, Bilady, Biladymarked the fulfillment of one of Dad’s two goals for his football career. The other, being to see Newcastle United lift a trophy, remains woefully out of reach.

If singing the anthem before the game against Uruguay was a moment to be a proud Egyptian, the aftermath of the defeat to Russia (which meant we were already knocked out after two games) saw dad switch to Geordie. As we trudged from the Krestovky Stadium Back at the metro station, Dad – whose native language is Arabic and spoke to fellow Egyptians – was so angry with the team’s performance that he gave up Arabic altogether. “That fucking Ahmed Fathy, man!he complained to anyone within earshot who would listen and understand.

Wherever you come from, spending 40 years watching Newcastle United win nothing will ensure that the language you have chosen for a volley of football-related invective is English. I smiled.

Most of my memories aren’t football-specific (we were back at Heathrow before the end of the group stage, and I watched England progress to the semi-finals here in London). What I have above all are precious memories of holidays, of a country which – whatever one may think of its current leadership – is a magnificent place to visit, and people who were extraordinarily pleasant and welcoming, nothing more than the man outside the stadium in St Petersburg wearing a hoodie who proudly exclaims (if a little intimidating): “I AM FROM NOVOSIBIRSK!!! ASK ME!!!”. (Novosibirsk, by the way, is 3,839km from St. Petersburg – quite a journey to watch what was, essentially, a home game).

I’ve been lucky enough to travel to major European cities, but St. Petersburg – especially in the “sleepless night” of June when it is not dark at all (and which coincided with Egypt playing Russia there) – with its grand boulevards, and the Hermitage as its crown jewel, puts them all in the shade . As for Moscow, which Dad and I visited en route to dead rubber against Saudi Arabia in Volgograd, its metro stations are as beautiful as art galleries, and I can highly recommend a trip to the Sanduny baths, if your idea of ​​fun is (like mine) standing naked in a hot sauna while obese Russian men take turns waving birch twigs near your testicles, before jumping into a barrel of ice cream.

A fond mention, too, for Gorodishche, the “work regulationsβ€œ10 km from Volgograd, where dad and I spent two nights in a family house. We thought the taxi driver got it wrong, as he dropped us off at an unnamed dead end in a housing estate. But this is Russia – beyond the high-end hotels (which were extortionate), accommodation was a lottery, and many “hotels” are just redeveloped individual floors of apartment buildings of the soviet era. This place, booked on Airbnb, seemed okay.

Dad started chain-smoking, cursing at his son who was wandering down the deserted street, looking for 3G and wondering what was wrong. In the end, we were in the right place after all, and ten minutes later we were hugged by a very motherly lady called Victoria, talking about Ahmed Musa and drinking terrible coffee with two gigantic Nigerians in the kitchen, who were in town since their game against Iceland. We transported Victoria’s son in his buggy. We struggled in the supermarket as no one spoke a word of English, so we only bought what we could imitate. The chicken was easy. The cheese was not. We had chicken.

All in all, Russia felt like a treat, almost a throwback to the holidays before the world got so small. Why would someone in a Gorodishche supermarket speak English? For thousands of miles in all directions there is only Russia. It seemed most of the supporters were enjoying the privilege of being there. The relatively few England fans who made the trip (the FA and government having done an impressive job of deterring troublemakers) were good company. Fans of South American teams strolled around the city in huge groups, all carrying their kits – like tour groups in the Louvre. Everyone cheered in the St. Petersburg fan park as Mexico went ahead against Germany, including the Germans themselves.

There was a funny moment at a busy intersection. St. Petersburg was buzzing with supporters from every country in the tournament, all of whom waited patiently to cross. All, that is to say, except us. Egyptians – and only Egyptians – rushed around the traffic in various directions, to the amazement of almost everyone. We may not be able to get out of the group, but we’ll cross your fucking path whenever we want.

I loved Russia and I loved its people. I know where I stand on Putin and the current conflict. My wife and I have two young Ukrainian women, from Kharkiv, who live with us. They are trying to build a new life here in London. As we help them navigate the bureaucracy associated with applying for benefits, getting a job, and opening a bank account (and as they try to familiarize themselves with a transportation system in which the Circle Line is not circular, the Overground runs underground, the Underground runs above ground, and the Northern Line runs furthest south), their fathers are at war.

We try not to talk about it. I know which side I’m on, but I still think Russia is a wonderful place and I hope to return there one day. Although maybe not in Gorodishche.

I will not go to Qatar. Very few will. Fewer, still, will find plenty if they go. But when 2026 rolls around – and the draw is made for the World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico – I wouldn’t rule out being tempted by another World Cup jaunt, if commitments professionals and family allow it. In the meantime, I’ll just hope and pray that Newcastle United – finally – gives my dad what he always wanted.

Youssef Hatem – @yousef_1892

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