At the Luzhniki Stadium
I went to last Sunday’s World Cup final with my father (we sat in a box; a Russian friend of his had offered him two tickets). It was 22 years since I’d last been in Moscow. There was no sign now of the scruffy riotousness I remembered. Everything about the city gleamed: a giant project of beautification had been undertaken in the run-up to the World Cup. Decades of grime had been scrubbed from the buildings, and a plethora of new roads, parks and pedestrian precincts built. The kerbside kiosks that had once sold vodka through the night were bulldozed two years ago, in an act of official vandalism unofficially known as the ‘Night of the Long Shovels’.
Our flight landed at 4.30 a.m. We spent the morning asleep, and took a taxi to the Luzhniki Stadium – capacity 81,000 – after lunch. As we wandered among the crowds (red-and-white checkerboard outnumbering blue by roughly three to one), I wondered what we were doing there. My father, who turns 80 next year, knows virtually nothing about football. I was once a half-decent goalie, and supported Liverpool opportunistically as a boy (it was the early 1980s), but real fans reckoned I had little right to be in Moscow. ‘Holy shit. Why are you at the World Cup final?’ a friend asked on WhatsApp. ‘You are neither French, Croatian nor someone who cares.’
But I had grown to care: as England progressed through the tournament, it had been impossible not to. By the time they beat Sweden in the quarter-final, a possibility I hadn’t entertained – that I’d get to see England play in a World Cup final – had mutated (almost) into a likelihood. And what if they actually won the thing? Patriotic fervour was hard to disentangle from anecdotal mileage – the chance to say I’d been there. In reality, they never stood much chance of winning. Among the things clarified by the semi-final loss to Croatia was how lucky England had been to get that far.
During the match, it was a relief not to have to worry too much about the outcome (though on balance I wanted France to win). In part because the plutocratic Russians we were sharing the box with didn’t seem as if they’d appreciate excessive displays of partisanship. But also because the two teams had such strong, and contrasting, styles that it was nice to be able to appreciate them with some semblance of disinterest.
Two of the French goals, it was said, were extremely lucky, but I didn’t see it quite that way. All four – apart from the one Mbappé bunted in himself – came on the back of tearing movements down the righthand side, which, it was clear, panicked Croatia. The mistakes that led to the ‘lucky’ goals (Mandžukić’s backwards header, Perišić’s controversial handball) were a product of that uncertainty. When you watch football live, you get a far better sense of the significance of what happens off the ball. On TV, the threat posed by a quick striker is only apparent when he has, or is near, the ball. By his standards, Mbappé didn’t have an especially brilliant game, but the ever-present danger he posed was a major factor in the outcome.
After the game, a contest of another kind unfolded. As the stage for the trophy presentation was (very slowly) prepared, a giant black cloud gathered above the Luzhniki. For a few minutes during the ceremony, we were treated to the spectacle of a bone-dry Russian president taking refuge under a black umbrella, while the presidents of France and Croatia standing next to him bore the full force of the downpour. One Russian told me that Macron and Grabar-Kitarović’s security guards were to blame for their lack of umbrellas. But the presidents didn’t seem to mind too much. Macron, in his tight suit, was clearly loving the chance to get wet with the French team; and he and Grabar-Kitarović, untroubled by the rain, seemed to be competing over who could hug the players for longest. Putin, meanwhile, stiffly shook each player’s hand.
And perhaps this coda had its own off-ball benefits. In the last twenty minutes of the match, as defeat loomed, a silence had descended over the Croatian sections of the crowd. But an hour or so later, as my father and I walked to the exit, most of the Croatian fans we saw were animated and smiling, almost as if they had won.