And there we were, following the Moskva, down to Gorky Park, listening to the winds of change....
Well, much of it, anyway... following the lyrics of the Scorpions’ power ballad. But Hublot’s rocketship ride into the underbellies of football’s leadup to next year’s greatest show on earth, was a highly dramatic one for the party of three at the recent Confederations Cup in Moscow.
We made the news, apparently... luggage “hickup” at Heathrow meant we (two Malaysian writers and our Hublot rep) were left dealing with the nerve-wracking possibility of not being in our own clothes for a few days.
We’ll say it again, though... we met Pele. And it was all worth it. The man has absolutely dominated the World Cup like no other. Diego Maradona can always claim to be the single most brilliant player to have kicked a ball and who dominated a tournament, but Edson Arantes do Nascimento did it over three championships.
And him being a really humble legend – all is as good as what has been written or heard about him... and “seen”, these days. But he was simply all that. He walked with a cane and the aid of his minder... who looked a little like a lean Mike Tyson. And Pele did it all with a smile and grace that is humbling.
He entertained all our (journalists from Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Vietnam) questions for 20 solid minutes. No question was barred. Like how he had done so, he agreed no player could dominate world football like that again because players’ club commitments now outweigh their national duty, with a keen interest always on economics.
“Before, people focus more on the game. Now, all the big investment in clothes, shoes and football equipment has become part of the business. But most importantly, football is a sport that brings people together. Unfortunately, someone has to pay the bill,” said the 76-year-old.
There is hope, though, in greater initiatives like that of the Swiss watchmaker’s Hublotlovesfootball campaign, exemplified at the last two World Cups, the Euros since 2008, and the Champions and Europa leagues since 2015. After all, a footballer of Pele’s repute is not going to place his name or mug next to a product or endeavour that doesn’t benefit the game.
“I have a lot of proposals... for beer, alcohol. But these are not good for the sport or people, so that’s why I don’t accept them. Hublot tries to support the sport, and the sport is important for the life of the people and children. So, that’s why I accepted it,” Pele offered, all of which can only mean the beautiful game should reach out to a larger audience, and bring the world closer together.
Rock around the clock
As a city, Moscow shows the kind of promise FIFA has placed faith in. For a laugh, unfortunately, nature decided to intervene and turn summer into its coldest in 60 years. The lightning show was frightful and there was this persistent doom of the sky opening up at any time, and like clockwork (pardon the pun), it did. It poured when Pele, Hublot’s CEO Ricardo Guadalupe and selected guests, including the great Lev Yashin’s widow, Valentina, and former Russian captain Alexei Smertin, were at the Hublot countdown clock, which started the countdown less than a year from 2018’s sporting extravaganza.
A couple of touching scenes luckily warmed the atmosphere as Valentina presented Pele a laminated pass and he, in return, handed her a framed picture of him and Yashin, his greatest goalkeeping nemesis, at the World Cup.
Leaving it to the weather, the capital’s people didn’t seem the warmest beyond the organisers’ care... or the hotel’s boundaries.
As a piece of history, however, all our ill-conceived perceptions are tantamount to stereotyping – CCCP and the sickle and hammer on the Soviet Union player’s jersey, the goose-step marches of its armed forces, and of course, the stunningly gorgeous St Basil’s Cathedral in the Kremlin.
Down by the river...
But there we were, again, following the Moskva (pronounced Musk-va) ... and the Luzhniki Stadium loomed, with the hammer and sickle powerfully emblazoned at its entrance, reminding us unflinchingly of the nation’s footballing passion, easily attested to in its global interest, what with the 2008 Champion’s League final seeing Manchester United victors there.
The action for the opening game, though, was in St Petersburg. But almost like a freak of nature, another debacle unfolded at the domestic airport, where being late for the curtain raiser was a real prospect because of sneakily incompetent airport staff. After sweating it out for half an hour, the port city beckoned.
Here comes the sun...
St Petersburg is everything Moscow isn’t. The architecture, for one, is more European, unlike Moscow, which is more Russian. The culture capital also exhibits its industrial past. A guide revealed that ancient wooden roads were discovered beneath some streets not long ago, structures which saw active use in the 11th and 12th centuries, trivia that easily generated anthropological intrigue.
With its sunshine and eye-catching waterways, St Petersburg is easily the more attractive proposition. The “climate” here seemed more pro-tourism; it just felt like folk here are more accustomed to dealing with people from elsewhere.
The balminess seemed ideal for the opening game, in which the host nation took on Oceania champions New Zealand. Watching paint dry might have been more exciting, given the poor quality of the match, in which Russia won 2-0, but a highlight was witnessing the nation’s president, Vladimir Putin, give his welcome speech. The language was alien to us, but Putin has a presence and power that’s simply potent.
Time to play
Likewise, Hublot. The timepiece maker is everywhere these days, seen on the wrists of some of the greatest sports people and celebrities, everyone from Manchester United’s Jose Mourinho to fastest man on earth, Usain Bolt.
There’s good reason why these people have chosen to embrace horology the Hublot way – style and class don’t come in many other guises. And its recent opening of the Metropol Boutique in Moscow will flash its name even brighter and cater to a growing lifestyle-conscious populace.
However, with an eye on the 2018 Russia World Cup, attention will largely be focused on football.
“From the last World Cup (2014), we’ve had the shape of the watch as the referee board. We had 21 minutes of visibility in the tournament, meaning that we touched billions of people,” explained Guadalupe, effectively justifying Hublot’s omnipresence.
The Confederations Cup may have reached a predictable conclusion with Germany running out winners, but there’s plenty of football to come... and Hublot will be counting down every step of the way.