Scare stories of hooliganism, racism, and homophobia dominated coverage which seemed more interested in confirming its own stereotypes than uncovering the complexities of a nation. The vast majority of the locals and fans meeting in Russia couldn't care less about the politics.
How about this headline from The Times newspaper in Britain after Russia's opening 5-0 win over Saudi Arabia? "Russia get party started with goal feast for Vladimir Putin." To me it seems extremely cynical to suggest the team did it for Putin; they did it for the excited kids who came out of Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium afterwards with big smiles on their faces. They did it for the Russians that love football. That is a headline written by someone who can't get out of the way of their own preconceptions.
Wander through central Moscow now and no one has politics on their mind; instead you see different cultures eager to meet. The South Americans have bought their 'A' game, and I'm talking about the fans, not the teams. There are so many Peruvians dancing and drinking their way around the capital, it is tempting to check whether there is anyone left over in Lima. Their team hasn't been to a World Cup since 1982, so they're not about to let this chance go by. The Aeroflot flight from London to Moscow appeared to be made up of me, a sheepish looking Mexican, and hundreds of Peruvians.
The sky blue and white stripes of Argentina are giving the Peruvians a run for their money in the early days of the tournament in Moscow. On Friday, hundreds of them set up camp on the fringes of Red Square, and beneath the watchful eye of the statue of General Zhukov sitting astride his horse, sang their hearts out. On the day, the catchy Latin beat from Buenos Aires was the biggest draw at Russia's main tourist attraction.
Russians just can't get enough of it, because they have no interest in the negativity they hear about themselves from the dominant foreign media, and can't wait to welcome people from other cultures who come with an open mind. You won't go far in the capital without seeing Russian babushkas practicing their salsa with smiling, loose hipped, swarthy strangers, and middle-aged men embracing in the spirit of friendship. They can't speak each other's language, so communicate with hugs while bellowing the names of each other's country at one another.
The only angry local I have encountered so far was a Russian taxi driver who became slightly annoyed that I didn't want any of the mints and chocolates he had placed in the car especially for foreign guests, and then got angry that his new translation app kept telling me that taxis in Moscow are more expensive than Russian tea. I'll never find out what he actually wanted to say.
Iceland fans have flocked to Moscow for their opening game against Argentina like happy Viking hordes, clearly ignoring their government, which is officially boycotting the tournament. With so many Icelanders coming to watch their team, it makes you wonder what point the government was trying to make.
What politics have we seen creeping in so far? Well, we had British gay rights activists Peter Tatchell arrested in Moscow for his one-man protest outside Red Square. It's not the first and probably not the last time he's been arrested in Russia, and it's always noticeable how few Russian activists stand alongside him. They would probably prefer to fight their fight their own way.
I asked a half-Russian half-Egyptian barber called Adam (yep, that was his name) about the politics of the game when the two nations meet in St. Petersburg on Tuesday. He said he couldn't care less about that, and told me how Egypt's star player Mohamed Salah should be used in a central role for the last half hour of the game. It was me, the Englishman, who had brought up politics. Adam wasn't interested and just wanted to talk about tactics.
In all of those scare stories of Russian hooligans you see in the English-speaking mainstream media, no one made the point that is now obvious to see. While no one denies there are a few idiots who enjoy trouble, in Russia, their number is insignificant when compared to the vast number of people who want to enjoy the festival, and make sure no one ruins it.
By Simon Rite, RT in Moscow
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