A slice of Russia for football fans in Chennai

There's no need to be disheartened if you've missed the flight to Russia. Head to the Russian Cultural Center to catch the World Cup fever.

A piece of Russia: Fans at the Russian Cultural Centre in Chennai.   -  Amal John

These days, Russia’s streets are filled with fans from different parts of the world for the FIFA World Cup. The capital, Moscow, has taken on a different hue with the non-stop partying and mingling of different nationalities in one place.

A glimpse of that festive mood and fanfare is being recreated at the Russian Cultural Centre here, and all other 90 such centres around the world through screenings of all the matches. Says Mikhail, the director of the centre here, ahead of Russia’s game against Uruguay, “Moscow is a great fest. It has become a city that doesn’t sleep now. People are always on the streets partying but it’s always peaceful. A little bit of that is what we’re trying to bring here.”

But the efforts to create a festive atmosphere don’t end with the screening. As you enter the gates, you are greeted by a life-size cut-out of Zabivaka, the Eurasian wolf, who is the mascot for this year’s World Cup. The reception is adorned with huge ‘FIFA World Cup 2018’ banners and posters, surrounded by more pictures of Zabivaka in different poses with the football. Above a display of several Russian books is a photo exhibition of all the 12 stadiums the World Cup will be played in.

Read: Uruguay tops group with thumping win over Russia

“Anyone who knows about Russian football will know that St. Petersburg has a very poor ground. But all of that changed this year. We wanted to show all that,” said Mikhail, who is also a huge football fan. To top that, the match screenings are held outside a restaurant called ‘Winter Palace’, painted in icy blue and serving Russian cuisine.

A ‘social event’

Just before the match begins, Olga goes around distributing score prediction cards, and her namesake paints the Russian flag on people’s faces. Dressed in Russia 2018 T-shirts, Olga and Olga are Russian nationals working in Chennai, helping out in running the whole show. The score prediction cards is one of the contests they organise to involve the fans, and they have a lot of Russian souvenirs to give away.

Football fever: World Cup souvenirs at the Russian Cultural Centre. Photo: Amal John

 

“It’s a big thing for us, because you probably get to host the World Cup once in a lifetime and we’re trying to provide that experience to other places as well,” said one of them. She insists that the World Cup for them is more of a social event than just football. “You see there are people from India, Russia, Japan, America and France here now, interacting with each other. That is the atmosphere that we want to create, that a World Cup creates in any country it is hosted in.”

Moderate numbers

Although they have people from different countries coming, they haven’t been able to attract the Indian crowd as much. “We don’t know if it is because we haven’t promoted it enough, but given the situation, I’d say the number that has turned up is good enough,” Mikhail said, inferring that football is not as popular as another sport in India.

“Obviously we can’t compare it to countries like Argentina, where the Russian Cultural Centre has thousands of people coming in to watch the matches,” he added.

MORE FROM THE WORLD CUP

For the Russian nationals living in the city, though, the screenings bring them a little closer to home. “Back in Moscow, it’s crazy. I have friends putting up Instagram stories of all the partying and parades that goes late into the night,” said Andrew, a Russian national from Moscow.

“I know those streets, I know those places. They look completely different. I know nothing about football, but I really wish I was in Moscow right now. But I’m glad that here I have people from my country with whom I can support my team. It’s better than nothing,” he said, while Mikhail raised chants of “Ru-ssi-aa, Ru-ssi-aa” as the Russian team trailed 3-0 against Uruguay.