Of all the streets in all the host cities at this summer’s World Cup in Russia, Nikolskaya in Moscow is the one that has truly captured the essence and imagination of the tournament.
A riot of color and noise day or night, Nikolskaya Street has become the beating heart of the World Cup celebrations sweeping Russia. Thousands of fans from each of the 32 nations have passed along it, mingling, celebrating, commiserating – giving this half-mile stretch of the Russian capital an almost magical quality as the World Cup progresses.
Bookended by Red Square to the south and Lubyanka Square to the north, the pedestrianized street would not have been top of many World Cup fans’ must-see lists for a trip to Moscow. Even Muscovites themselves probably wouldn’t include it in the rankings of the beguiling sights their city has to offer.
Indeed, up until a few years ago Nikolskaya remained a neglected sidetrack offering little in the way of entertainment or appeal. But all that changed with the extensive redevelopment of the city center in recent years, and in particular the full pedestrianization of many areas of central Moscow.
Nikolskaya was given a much-needed facelift: new paving stones were laid; benches, flower beds and stylish streetlights were added to line the route. The changes drew in new cafes, shops, and restaurants, as well as special stalls during festive seasons – bringing an altogether different vibe to the street.
But it’s during the World Cup that Nikolskaya has really come into its own, with the closure of Red Square at the start of the tournament funneling thousands of fans into its tributaries.
Nikolskaya has been dubbed ‘The Street of Lights’ thanks to glowing decorations that have remained strung up since the New Year’s celebrations.
It is now the name on every football fan's lips in Russia, rapidly earning it a landmark status alongside the likes of more established Moscow sights such as Red Square, the Arbat, and Gorky Park.
Mexican and Latin American fans were among the first to make their mark on the street, setting up shop in the days leading up to the opening World Cup game. Since then, fans from all 32 World Cup nations have strolled along the route – a trip which is quickly becoming a literal rite of passage for all supporters at Russia 2018.
You can sense the buzz before you have even turned onto the street – and then it hits you. The bright fairy lights strung above the pedestrians below; the hum from the thousands of fans lined along the street; the blast of color from the assembled nationalities.
The hosts have also been drawn to the party, becoming more and more evident as the tournament progresses. They are eager to join the celebration being held on their doorstep, and keen to inquire about the colorful curiosities from far afield.
Nikolskaya has seen it all: congo-forming Mexicans, Peruvians unveiling a giant national team shirt, and Argentinians stringing up giant flags to honor the greats of the game.
Conspicuous by its absence, however, has been trouble and violence, with fans more likely to embrace than ambush, to take selfies rather than launch assaults.
Indeed, Nikolskaya has perhaps served as an alleyway of enlightenment for those who feared the worst for the World Cup in Russia, for those who were convinced that violence and fear would reign, or that the hosts would be less than welcoming to the more than 1 million fans flocking across their borders.
As the tournament progresses and teams are knocked out, the number of fans will no doubt dwindle, and the magic of Nikolskaya will perhaps fade. But among the many memories made by Russia 2018, Nikolskaya will be among the foremost.