KUALA LUMPUR: With the FIFA World Cup on the cusp of the exciting semi-final stage, Malaysian fans in Russia have been doing their part to be “heard” among the boisterous crowds at the various stadiums.
Many had made the 6,375km trip just to get a feel of the once-in-four-years crazy soccer mania there, refusing to be armchair critics in the comfort of their homes here.
First-timers Ahmad Danial Iman, 18, and Ganesh Raj Kumaraguru, 27, who went separately to Russia, said their experience was nothing short of “magical.”
“It was very special as it was my first time going to a World Cup. Also, when I was young, Brazil was the team that caught my eye. Players like Ronaldinho and Ronaldo made me love football so it was extremely special to have watched Brazil play live,” said Ahmad.
Ahmad watched three matches – Belgium against Tunisia, France against Denmark and Brazil against Serbia.
Ganesh said that the grand highlight from the matches he watched was seeing Japan go 2-0 up to Belgium and the thriller that ensued.
“It was nice to see the gap between the teams narrow and to see teams like Iceland draw against teams like Argentina,” said Ganesh.
Ganesh also remarked that all negative stereotypes often attached to Russians were shattered as the locals have actually been incredibly welcoming.
This was seconded by Sim Lin Piah, 49, who said there had not been any encounters with the infamous Russian skinheads.
“Russians are smart, respectful and deeply patriotic. We were lucky to be in St Petersburg when their football team won against Spain in a crucial penalty shootout.
“There were also spontaneous shouts of “Russia, Russia, Russia” at various places from time to time during our travels,” said the lawyer, adding that most Russians have heard of Malaysia.
Sim and his friend travelled from St Petersburg in the west to Moscow and Samara in the southwest, managing to watch four games, including the quarter-final matches between France and Uruguay, and between England and Sweden.
Ahmad said even international fans were friendly and inclusive.
“I was greeted by several fans from Brazil during the game and they even invited me to join a huddle as they celebrated the victory after,” Ahmad said.
For a 32-year-old aviation executive from Taman Tun Dr Ismail who wanted to be known only as NS, his Russian experience was still unique despite him being a second-time World Cup attendee.
Rio 2014 in Brazil – the nation where football is akin to religion –was his first World Cup experience.
“It is a special time for Russia. We got to see them opening their doors to the world,” said NS.
“From the planning side, I can easily say the costs to be here in Russia for two to three weeks – accommodation, F&B, flights and match tickets – are around RM6,500-RM7,000 (60% of total costs are from match tickets),” he said.
Brazil-supporting Paul Sarut, a DXC Technology manager, was impressed with the fan fest areas with many music and dance activities, located in the heart of the tourist centre.
For Paul, watching the World Cup live was always his dream as he grew up loving football by watching matches with his father – a former footballer in the 1960s.
Although rave reviews from football fans are to be expected, Law Yi Wan, who claims not to know much about football, said her experience in Russia has also been unique.
The 19-year-old medical student at Kursk State Medical University said there was definitely a boom in nationalistic pride among the local and international students alike.
“When Russia won their games, there were cars with people cheering while leaning out the window. There were even teachers who came in wearing football jerseys!” said Law.
“I also have a few friends who went to Moscow during the Russian game and they really loved the atmosphere there.
“When they were in the metro, one of them started chanting for Russia and soon the whole train of people were joining in!”
Supporting other countries at the World Cup is fun but as proud Malaysians, being able to support Harimau Malaya would be a real delight.
As Ganesh jokingly said, “Malaysia should organise a World Cup – so that we will automatically qualify as host!”
NS too said it would be nice if the World Cup was hosted in South-East Asia for a change.
“We can have all 10 Asean countries host the World Cup to minimise the costs where each country uses its current facilities.” said NS.
Who knows, our dream of seeing our national team at the greatest stage on Earth could be a reality one day.