One country I’ve always wanted to visit is Russia. My dad was born there and spent most of his life there until he met my mom, got married, and emigrated to the US. If you met my dad today, you’d be forgiven for thinking he just got off the boat. Thirty something years later, and his Russian accent is still thick. I may have a Russian dad and a Russian name, but I can’t speak a lick of the language and I’d never been there. With the 2018 World Cup taking place in Mother Russia, I figured it was the best chance to finally cross it off my list. Not much of a football fan (or a Russia fan, for that matter), Rachel decided to sit this one out. Here’s a look at my experience visiting Russia for the World Cup as part of our year-long party.
My brother and I had talked about going to Russia for the World Cup for several years. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally go and pay a visit to the motherland. Plus, the World Cup is one of the biggest and most exciting events in the world. Even though I’m not exactly a football fanatic, I always enjoy watching the World Cup and have ever since my dad took me to a game in ’94 when the tournament was in the US.
We were in the middle of our massive trip around South America while the qualifier games were going on. While watching the USA vs. Panama game in Medellin, I hilariously mistook which team was which. I thought Panama was crushing the US while in fact it was the other way around. Whoops. Rachel got a good kick out of that, and once I realized it was the US who was about to win 4-0, I was pretty excited. It seemed as if they were well on their way to a spot in the 2018 World Cup, which gave me even more of a reason to go for it.
How to Get Tickets for the World Cup
There are several different rounds of ticket releases for the World Cup. In the first round, you don’t even know what teams are in it yet. You just pick games for specific dates and cities. We figured this was our best bet to guarantee us some tickets, so we each put in for a game in Moscow and a game in St. Petersburg. As luck would have it, we scored all four and got some pretty great matches at that.
We got tickets for Argentina vs. Iceland, Mexico vs. Germany, Russia vs. Egypt, and Brazil vs. Costa Rica. Of course, at this point the US had also been eliminated after their embarrassing loss to Trinidad and Tobago. I was a bit disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to don some patriotic Captain America garb, but decided not to let the USA’s absence influence my decision. We were still going to Russia, if only I could figure out how to get there…
Traveling Across the World
The biggest issue for me was clearly going to be how the hell to get all the way to Russia. When I found out we had scored the tickets, we were doing the digital nomad thing in Lima. I still had to figure out how to get us to Patagonia, Carnaval in Brazil, the Salt Flats in Bolivia, and Machu Picchu. Trying to also figure out travel arrangements to get me to Russia proved to be very stressful to say the least.
After a lot of searching and number crunching, I was seriously ready to give up and try to sell my tickets. I didn’t want to leave my brother hanging, though, and I didn’t want to pass up a golden opportunity to go to Russia. Having World Cup tickets meant you didn’t need a visa, which is usually time-consuming and costly. I powered on and kept the dream alive.
Finally, I got the great news of a flight deal from Chicago to London. It didn’t get me to Russia, but it sure helped. I set about planning a little Euro-trip in the run-up to the World Cup. After raging for four days at Summer Camp, I hopped the pond to foggy London Town. Next up was a train trip through Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. I met up with Pip along the way, and we caught a flight from the Hungarian capital up to Moscow just in time for the World Cup.
Moscow is a massive city that has several airports. As such, it took us well over an hour to finally get to our hostel. Since I had snoozed a bit on booking one, we ended up staying pretty far out of the city center at the Absolute Hostel. What a fitting name for a Russian hostel, right? Arriving there, we were greeted by a very surly old Russian man and a barbed-wire fence. We were off to a great start!
Once we finally figured out how to get in the building, we headed up to the hostel and tried to check in. It was clear right away that language barriers were going to be an issue here, as our dad had warned us. An hour later, we were finally checked in to our dorm room. Something we quickly learned in Russia is that hostels aren’t so much for backpackers as they are for drifters. In both hostels we stayed in, there were several Russians who were clearly living there. Oh, and we weren’t allowed to drink beer! In a hostel! Oh well, we didn’t go all the way to Russia to hang out in a hostel, anyways.
Free Walking Tour
We first joined a free walking tour in Cartagena, which was the first stop on our South America adventure. I’ve made it a point to go on one in just about every city I’ve visited since then and always have a good time. For our first full day in the Russian capital, we joined the morning tour to explore the city.
Our group of about 30 was a mix of football fans from all over the world – Peruvians, Brazilians, Australians, Egyptians, and more. Meeting people from all corners of the globe was easily one of the best things about traveling in Russia during the World Cup.
We had an excellent guide who was clearly passionate about her city and sharing it with us. After a short walk through a park, we took in the views of the Moscow River and then checked out the city’s most iconic landmark – St. Basil’s Cathedral. While the walking tour was great and all, let’s get on to the action surrounding the World Cup!
Russia vs. Saudia Arabia
Tickets for the opening game were well out of our budget, so we tried to find a sports bar to take it in from. Unfortunately, there really aren’t that many sports bars in Moscow. One that came recommended was Liga Pap, so we headed there nice and early. Of course, every single seat was reserved. Instead, we found a little dive bar nearby called Rock & Roll and settled in at the bar with some vodka drinks.
Russia came out swinging, and before long they were up by a few goals. Despite being in a bar in Moscow, the atmosphere was less than lively. The dude next to us was just sitting there sipping a Red Bull, barely paying attention to the game. At halftime we headed back to Liga Pap to brave the crowds, which were now spilling onto the street.
With a seemingly endless line for the bar, we just bought a few cans of beer from a nearby convenience store and took in the end of the game right there on the street. When the final whistle came, Russia had trounced the Saudis 5-0 to kick off the 2018 World Cup. Russians aren’t exactly known for being overly excited or friendly people, but damn was everyone in a good mood that night!
Argentina vs. Iceland
The next day, we had our first game of the World Cup to get to. It was held at Spartak Stadium, which is basically in the suburbs of Moscow. Once again, we tried to find a sports bar nearby. Once again, it was far too crowded. We managed to get a few beers in and some cheap kebabs and then made our way to the stadium.
When we heard what sounded like a rowdy party, we were surprised to stumble upon a Chinese restaurant. With a lack of proper sports bars, all the soccer hooligans converged on this Chinese restaurant and proceeded to order all their booze. It was quite the scene, and we managed to brave the line and grab a few drinks.
As far as the game, it was a pretty good one. Nobody really expected Iceland to hang tough with Argentina, but they did. When Iceland’s goalie blocked a penalty kick from Messi, the tens of thousands of Argentina fans in attendance were left in complete shock and disbelief. The game ended in a 1-1 draw in what was a disappointing sign of things to come for Argentina.
Mexico vs. Germany
While the US didn’t make the cut this time around, my new home country of Mexico did. I was pretty pumped to score tickets for this game, which appeared to be one of the best in the group stage. Of course, the defending champion Germans were the heavy favorite.
This game took place at Luzhniki, which is known as the national stadium in Russia. With my bootleg Chicharito jersey and lucha libre mask on, I was ready to go. There were plenty of excellent photo opps with other Mexican fans and even a few German ones:
It was an exciting game full of twists and turns. Mexico’s goalie made some incredible saves, but the offense kept blowing quality chances. When they finally got one past the Germans, the place absolutely erupted. As they tend to do, the Mexican fans tossed their full beers into the air in celebration. Just like that, they had taken down the mighty Germans in a major upset.
Check out the condensed version in my short video highlight.
Another great thing about the World Cup in Russia was the free transportation available to ticket holders. If you had tickets for a game, public transportation in that city was free for you all day. You could also catch trains in between cities for free if you had games in both. We boarded a sleeper train and headed out to St. Petersburg to continue our World Cup journey.
Many of our names in my family come from the Russian tsars, including my own. To start our trip in St. Petersburg, we visited the Peter and Paul Fortress to learn a little bit more about our Russian heritage. The cathedral is absolutely beautiful, and it’s the final resting place for many of the Russian tsars. Enough with the history lesson, though – back to football!
Russia vs. Egypt
When we selected our tickets, we knew that Russia would be playing in this game. We figured it would be cool to see the host nation play a game, and thanks to the draw we also got to see one of the best players in the world in Salah from Egypt. It was a chilly, windy evening as we headed into St. Petersburg Stadium for the match.
Out of four games that we went to, this was the only one that we missed the national anthems and flag ceremony for. Go figure. The security line was insane and it moved painfully slow, but thankfully we got in just before kick-off. Even though we had picked the cheapest seats available, I’d say we did alright for most of the games. We had a clear view and easy access in all but one of the games, which was key for those pee and beer breaks that usually go hand in hand.
Speaking of beers, we noticed something interesting at this game. While the souvenir cups for other games had the country flags on them, this game did not. We also noticed that there are no advertisements for any alcoholic drinks in Russia, only non-alcoholic beer. Perhaps they didn’t allow their flag to be on the beers at their own World Cup. Who knows? Either way, these were the only ones we didn’t bother to save a few of.
Russia continued their unexpected success in the 2018 World Cup with a convincing 3-1 win over Egypt. I turned to my brother and joking said, “Whatever Putin is giving these guys is working!” While their Cinderella story would eventually end in defeat to Croatia, they had an impressive run this year.
Brazil vs. Costa Rica
For our last game, we got to see Brazil play Costa Rica on a beautiful sunny day in St. Petersburg. As you may expect, the Brazilian fans showed up in droves. With elaborate costumes, loud drums, and of course a few pesky vuvuzelas, they made sure you heard and saw them. We braved the long beer lines and grabbed a few cold ones before finding our seats.
Costa Rica was able to hang tough with the most successful team in World Cup history, and the game remained a scoreless draw heading into extra time. After the referee took away a penalty kick for Neymar, I seriously thought the Brazilian fans were going to riot. It was a bit tense in there.
Thankfully, the Brazilians finally scored a goal in extra time that sent the faithful into a raucous celebration. One more goal came a few minutes later to seal the deal, and the Brazilians escaped with a 2-0 win. 2018 would not prove to be their year, though, as they went on to lose to Belgium in the knockout stage.
Pickle Shots and Fish Sandwiches
While searching for places to drink in St. Petersburg, I came upon this Soviet-era bar that sounded interesting. We decided to check it out one night to watch one of the games and have a few drinks. It’s set in what looks like a bunker and there’s not one word of English on the menu. Awesome!
As we were sitting at the bar, I struck up a conversation with the guy next to us. He told me he comes to this bar all the time and that he’s not a huge fan of football. A few minutes later, we were doing shots of vodka chased with apple slices. Next up were some odd shots that tasted of pickle juice. Finally, he insisted we try the bar’s famous fish sandwiches, which featured a piece of fish, a black olive, a hard-boiled egg, and even more pickles. I was pretty hammered, but they were actually so good I had a couple.
Heading in to this World Cup trip, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. When we asked our dad if he wanted to come with, his response was “I spent my entire life trying to get out of Russia. Why would I go back?” Thanks for the encouraging words, pops! Plus, Russians aren’t exactly famous for being friendly and fun-loving people. In the end, though, I’ll say that I was pleasantly surprised by Russia and all the people I met.
One of the first things that happened to us in Moscow was a local lady offering to help as we stared confusedly at the metro map. This would happen on several occasions throughout our trip, as plenty of locals helped out. We also had a great time hanging out at the bars (when we could find a seat at one, at least), striking up conversations with people and sharing stories.
All in all, I’d say the trip was a huge success. I finally made it to Mother Russia and managed to include one of the biggest events in the world in our year-long party in the process. It went by way too fast, though, and I would love to get back to Russia again to see more of the country. At least I know there are some funky pickle-flavored vodka shots and fish sandwiches waiting for me whenever that time comes.