It is surprising what you can learn from watching how a country handles the challenge of hosting a major sporting event. And it is equally surprising to find that you can learn a similar number of things from seeing how various persons involved, including the fans of the different participating countries, handle themselves in the same set of circumstances.
All this by way of introduction to the fact that I recently found myself attending a World Cup football match in Russia. Though I have been a football fan for over 60 years, this is the first time in my life I have attended a match at this level.
The first thing that has to be said is that Russia has done a great job of preparing for the event. On the hardware side, beautiful new stadiums have been built where necessary and old ones refurbished. The one I attended, at Nizhny Novgorod, was sparkling new and spectacular. From the software aspect, everybody who was able to obtain a ticket from the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) via one means or another was required to seek a Fan ID through the internet after verifying details of identity, passport etc. The website was so user friendly that even technological neanderthals like myself were able to complete registration easily. Armed with the Fan ID, it was possible to obtain free rail travel to distant venues and other benefits.
For example, on arrival at Moscow airport, my companion and I – both wearing our Fan ID badges prominently -- were pulled out of the melee and shepherded to a separate line by the security personnel. Other officials from whom we sought assistance at various times were unfailingly helpful (if sometimes somewhat terse). If it had just been the officials one could put it down to some sort of presidential directive. But members of the public also chipped in with a warm greeting and assistance. For example, on more than one occasion when we struggled to navigate the underground railway system, ordinary citizens would readily go out of their way to lead us to the right doorway to make sure we didn’t go astray.
On arrival at Nizhni itself there was a veritable army of young volunteers posted every few metres all the way from the railway station to the stadium to make sure we didn’t lose our way. They welcomed us to their city in carefully rehearsed English, with genuine warmth.
Owing to a quirk in the FIFA computer system, my companion (who had advised she would be supporting England) and I found ourselves in the Panamanian section of the crowd. Proceedings began with singing of the national anthems. The English are ill-served here, I think. Where the Scots have flower of Scotland, and the French sing the Marseillaise, both songs a person can put some oomph into, the Brits are stuck with what sounds like a plaintive funeral dirge. At sporting events would it not be possible to switch to something like "Land of Hope and Glory" or "There’ll always be an England" – something you can really get your teeth into and intimidate the opposition? In that case I may even have joined in myself.
The Panama supporters had no such problem. They calmly accepted my companion’s gentle rendition of the English version, then belted out their own country’s anthem at the top of their voices with genuine enthusiasm. We had travelled up on the train with a group of their supporters who had made the situation clear: this was the first time Panama had ever made it to the World Cup Finals, they were just delighted to be there. They had lost their first match three zero and held a party to celebrate. They took comfort in the fact that Argentina had lost their first match by a similar margin.
The bonhomie in the stadium took something of a hit when England raced into a 5-0 lead by half time. But by the start of the second half the Panama supporters had recovered their enthusiasm and cheered their team on lustily. When England’s sixth goal went in – an accidental deflection off a stray boot – I turned to the Panama supporter on my right and apologised. "I’m sorry," I said, "I have no words of consolation to offer".
He put his arm round my shoulder and replied "It’s OK, don’t distress yourself, we know we are not up to this standard". A few minutes later, England’s hat-trick hero Harry Kane was substituted, and the Panamanian contingent were profuse in their applause. I was very impressed by their sportsmanship!
A few moments later when slack English defending enabled Panama to score a consolation goal, I jumped to my feet along with my companions to share their joy: the first ever goal Panama had scored in the finals: a day they would all remember for the rest of their lives.
The behaviour of two other sets of supporters is also worth recording: all the talk on the terraces was about the Japanese supporters. They had brought garbage bags to the stadium for their match and when it was over cleaned up the whole premises, not just the area where they had been sitting.
And at various points during every match, the home supporters had made their presence felt with a deep roar of "Rush Eye Er".
From this disparate set of events I drew the following conclusions: the Russian people, not just their government, are proud to have hosted the World Cup. They have done a great job and are entitled to a pat on the back. And irrespective of results on the pitch, the Japanese and Panamanians are real winners.