The news of the more than 200 Nigerian football fans that were stranded in Moscow over the last two weeks has embarrassed the entire country. The desperation of many people to escape the harsh economic realities of our dear country led several to purchase one-way tickets to Moscow in the hopes of taking root in that vast country. Many who claim to have been duped of their return tickets would be found to be complicit in the decision to take one-way flights in order to cross the border into the adjoining European countries that seem to offer decent life opportunities. But the realities on ground mean that many have changed their minds, becoming a burden on our collective conscience.
A Nigerian that I met in Sochi came in from Georgia and wanted to stay back in Russia after the tournament. Andy said the economy of Russia would enable him thrive better than poorer Georgia where he played football in a third division club and could barely make ends meet. While the Fan ID does not replace a work visa, Andy was prepared to take his chances as the tournament came to an end and the inevitable sweep of illegal immigrants takes place afterwards. Last we spoke, he was looking for accommodation and expressed relief that the Russian government had validated Fan IDs till end of 2018.
But there are several thousand Nigerians that made the trip to the World Cup to enjoy the spectacle and have since returned to their base despite the alluring beauty of the Russian country and the warm welcome of its people.
I met a medical doctor who flew in from Australia. It was our second meeting in four years. Dr Ola Otaiku and I first met in Curitiba, Brazil, during the 2014 World Cup. We ran into one another again ahead of the Nigeria opener against Croatia in Kaliningrad on June 16. His is one of those faces you cannot forget. He had come to cheer the Super Eagles once more, flying from across the world like many others.
Russia offered contrasts and only the practiced eye would realise the different climatic conditions and economic variance inherent in the country. I stayed in five cities and each experience was unique. In Kaliningrad, there was a cross-culture between the German and Russian. My host spoke both Russian and German and the old city still bore relics of its history before the redrawing of national borders after the Second World War. In Volgograd, the weather was hot and the vegetation reminded one of northern Nigeria. There were lots of flies around and the Mamayev Kurgan statue imposed itself above the shiny new Volgograd Arena.
In Saint Petersburg it was chilly with intermittent rains. It never went completely dark as the sky remained lit up after sundown, what locals refer to as belye nochi - white nights. Walking around the massive metropolis with humongous high-rise apartments at 2am was akin to 6pm. In Moscow, the heart of the capital city was home to fans from all over the world. Red Square and Nikolya Street served as the centre for celebrating fans and travellers who poured in daily to sing and chant their national songs like old Soviet nationalist parades.
And then I returned to Sochi, the city where I went to study two years ago. The city by the Black Sea had not changed as it welcomed several thousands of visitors – football fans and holidaying Russians. The warmest city in Russia was the perfect place to enjoy a summer by the sea and take in the football matches on the big screen in the fan zone. It offered me an opportunity to relax with old friends as well as make new ones.
Many Russians were eager to meet foreign fans as their entire country opened up to the world for the first FIFA World Cup in Eastern Europe. Several fans expressed their surprise at finding Russia is a well organised country. An Englishman that I met on a flight from Sochi said he planned to return to the country with his family for future visits. A Nigerian friend has begun plans to return to Russia for the Formula 1 World Championship in Sochi. Another said he would be going back to Saint Petersburg as a replacement for London. ‘The beauty and the hospitality was top-notch,’ he explained.
More than 806,000 Fan IDs were issued to fans that bought tickets to at least one of the 64 World Cup matches. The World Cup has opened up Russia to a new group of people whose experiences would impact on the ability of Russia to become a bigger tourist attraction. And Russia is already considering the use of Fan IDs for sporting and cultural events in 2019 and beyond. The beauty of the World Cup is that it has helped Russia successfully improve its image around the globe through football.
And as Nigeria awaits the return of its stranded fans, expect Russia to become a fond destination for many people in the next few years.