I was sleep deprived during the month of June not only because of the “white nights” of Saint Petersburg and the abundant quantities of Russian vodka, but also because of the constant partying at the FIFA Fan Fest and the non stop watching and commenting on sixty-four soccer matches or should I say football matches. I met Iranian fans that told me that they could not wait to be part of the US/Canada/Mexico World Cup in 2026 because Americans “really knew how to party,” Russian fans that “love” the U.S. and others not so exited about our culture, Norwegians obsessed with tropical drinks in Russia, and many global travellers that could not handle their vodka well. The Russian Ruble treated as well (1 US dollar = 63.09 ruble) but the Euro not so much as we travelled by road back to Barcelona (1US dollar = 0.85 euro). I encountered many facets of nationalism and multiple visions about our country, but most fascinating of all was to see how the sport unites the world. The World Cup was a global parenthesis of peace and harmony in a world engulfed in conflict and war; one month of zero Facebook and zero media, no distractions to help me dream for a moment that we could live in an eternal World Cup but with all the nations of the world (and Beluga vodka for those interested in good Russian vodka).
My first eye opening experience was in Paris on our way to Barcelona. At the Charles De Gaulle Airport the people with their national jerseys began to appear as they waited for their connecting flights to multiple destinations in Russia. I saw Peruvians, Brazilians, Colombians, Mexicans, Panamanians, Costa Ricans, Egyptians, Saudi Arabians, and Senegalese. The conversations were about football and not politics; it felt good and relieving. A simple jersey destroyed stereotypes and constructed ideas; apparel resulted to be a powerful diplomatic tool.
I quickly learned that the jersey could also lead to conflict and confrontation. In Barcelona I asked Alejandro, my brother in law, why there was a lack of support for the Spanish national team? Where were the Spanish jerseys? He told me that, in general, the Catalans were not interested in supporting the national team; they were more interested in the separatist cause. We actually went to see the first Spanish match against Portugal (one of the best matches of the World Cup from my perspective) at a local bar off the tourist trap. There, the nationalists were gathered, away from the eyes of the separatists. All the jerseys were Spanish and the vibe was excellent; but it was weird walking back to the flat because there was no celebration, it was a sobering experience. I could see the separatist, Catalan, and other political propaganda hanging from people’s balconies; at the end we were in one of the global hotspots of separatism.
Football was not to be celebrated through the national team but through the local teams. Catalans experience football through Futbol Club Barcelona and Reial Club Deportiu Espanyol de Barcelona and not through the national team. I would compare it to hockey in the Province of Quebec where it is not about the national Olympic team but about the Canadians; hockey for the Québécois is the Canadians.
The separatist spirit did not impede us from enjoying our two-day stay in Barcelona, hopping from bar to bar as we joined the masses of fans cheering for their respective national teams. We watched Argentina vs. Iceland in a bar next to La Rambla that was packed with Argentinean fans that gasped and punched their table when they found out that Messi was going to take the penalty kick. As expected, he missed the shot and the fans went into a state of depression and sadness, as if somebody had died. I guess they saw the beginning of the end of the national team; fans have that sixth sense.
We watched France vs. Australia at a pub in the Barrio Gótico (Gothic Quarter) where the only French fans were my brother in law’s wife, Stephanie, and her two boys, Mateo and Gabriel. The French victory was not impressive but you could tell that they were timing their ascending curve in order to peak at the end of the tournament, just like the New England Patriots do year after year under Bill Belichick. We were also looking for our own personal ascending curve as we prepared to watch the sixty-four matches of the World Cup.
The excitement rose as we prepared for our flight to Saint Petersburg from El Prat Airport in Barcelona. As I sat waiting, I wondered how Russia would look like. All I had were the stereotypes constructed over the forty-eight years of my life. It was time to deconstruct these ideas or confirm their validity. Difficult though, at the end it was the World Cup and I was sure they had built a convincing façade for the world to see. (to be continued)