I met a South African couple based in Cape Town and in Dublin, and they do love the football, and as they rode the trains 22 hours from Samara to Moscow, then 18 hours from Moscow to Rostov-on-Don, then 18 hours from Rostov-on-Don to Moscow, then 22 hours from Moscow to Samara, they witnessed the brilliant Belgium-Japan match among others, and they reveled instead of reeled, as with umpteen nationalities they mingled.
I met two Assyrian-Swedes from Gothenburg, and I learned more than I ever knew about Assyrian history, oppression against Assyrians, the Assyrian diaspora and how an Assyrian grandmother might badger a 32-year-old grandson to get married. They’re male first cousins. They speak Assyrian, Swedish and tiptop English. Their four parents fled Turkey as young adults, settled in Sweden, raised five children per couple and taught them all to cherish both their culture and their Sweden until, of all the generational implausibilities, two of the sons grew up to start a soccer website, which grew popular and propelled them to zigzag around Russia among the populous World Cup media.
“Do you think your mothers are sitting around saying, ‘I can’t believe our sons are running around Russia for their football website?’ ” went the question.
“There’s not really an Assyrian word for ‘website,’ ” went the answer.
All these meetings occurred because of sports, an entity so tiresome in its corruption and cynicism and cheating, including that case in the country in which we happened to end up meeting, a case involving the 2014 Olympics and a doping scandal jaw-dropping enough to approach jaw-breaking.
And yet: I heard Peruvians sing their national anthem way out there in Ekaterinburg near the Europe-Asia line, 8,620 miles from Lima and some 36 years from their previous World Cup qualification, their sound widening the eyes and staggering the ears. I heard Mexicans sing their national anthem way out in that same stadium, their sound making the neck hairs salute. I heard 40,000 Colombians dominate the stadium and sing their national anthem way over there in Samara near the Kazakhstan border, and because the sound seemed to epitomize the Colombian nation with its hard past, its good present and its great future, okay, a few tears leaked.
Speaking of tears, I listened to a young Mexican woman from Mexico City tell of how, as she traveled with her husband and stepsons, ages 14 and 12, her husband kept getting choked up because, in this unknown place with the unknown cities and stadiums, the boys began bonding and collaborating rather than annoying the hell out of each other as nature generally mandates of brothers that age. (Mexico’s stirring win over Germany didn’t hurt.)
I listened to an Egyptian man from Cairo and another Egyptian man from Cairo and then an Egyptian man from — wait! — Fairfax, Va., as they told of broken hearts over an injury of the harshest untimeliness, the one in late May to their sparkling star Mohamed Salah, which ruined Egypt’s chances. I listened to Pakistani-Americans from Houston and Minneapolis riding the elegant metro to the stadium in St. Petersburg and saying the ticket-buying process already has begun for the 2019 Cricket World Cup in England.
If ever you can gab on a plane with a young Brazilian guy from Sao Paulo, then spot him three nights later on the giant stadium video screen wearing one of those Superman fan onesies that always seem to threaten certain body parts with untold discomfort, I highly recommend doing so. If ever you can meet a soccer-intellectual, Hong Kong-raised, California-based student with the first name Sampras, owing to his mother’s fondness for a certain tennis player, I highly recommend this as well.
All such chattering occurred, of course, at an event sponsored by FIFA, widely deemed one of the most disgusting organizations in human history, an organization so wretched that people attend its events figuring they have arrived in a certain host country largely because of howling pits of subterfuge.
And yet, for all the Chinese and South Africans and Assyrian-Swedes and Peruvian guys from Miami and the two young Indian guys staying in the jam-packed hostel with the young French guy, all of them, each one somehow, reached an identical conclusion: Russia was far better than imagined.
All had imagined a giant expanse of sullenness, of stony faces and dreary days and muffled humanity. Instead, they got helpfulness and spirit and revelry, even if Russians clearly do not value unnecessary smiling. Young Russian adults have a curiosity about the world. They have a fascination with, for one example, New York. They want to practice their English, the language that has swept the world thanks foremost to Hollywood.
So the topic du jour after jour went this way: Why did we think of Russia that way? Was it the movies? Was it — oh no! — the media? Was it the way the Russian president tends to look mirthless? How in the world do St. Petersburg (every bit as pretty as Paris) and Moscow (every bit as vibrant as London) not turn up more often in those great-city discussions at 4:30 a.m. — an hour at which, by the way, one can order a glass of fine Georgian wine in Moscow or St. Petersburg? How indeed, with Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Tchaikovsky et al always lurking nearby either in spirit or statues? Is this a product of a closed-off land huffily requiring tourist visas?
Even wordless communication with Russians came to matter. I spent 15 hours in a small train cabin with a very pregnant Russian couple aged 25-ish — technically, only the woman was pregnant — and while we couldn’t speak more than three words to each other, I will never forget the exemplary way he kept looking after her. On four occasions, I spent four-plus hours in silent taxis through the countryside, struggling to pantomime the need for bathroom breaks, curious at how even the rugged Russian drivers love poppy club music, staring at the purple and the yellow and the brown and the green of the countryside.
All four could drive like Senna and often did.
The last one, the youngest, sipped from a skyscraper can of a product labeled, in English, “Adrenaline Rush.”
In general, I always prefer my five-hour cab rides driven by those drinking “Adrenaline Rush.”
The Russians do smoke. (Boy, do they smoke.) They drive too fast (including in — or maybe especially in — Moscow). They canoodle on subways in a way we all agree is gross. They do laugh. The indifference of their countenances grows humorous across weeks. They ask what you thought of their country. They approach while you’re waiting for an Uber and thank you for coming to their country. Their economy does seem hard in glimpses, even as they pull off World Cup largesse. They look startled sometimes when you say you like them. You’re not supposed to like them.
Yet after 33 days with them infused with the mighty Latin Americans, plus the incomparable Senegalese and the clapping Icelanders and all the souls from all the continents except maybe Antarctica, an old friend has bobbed to the surface again. It bobs all the way to the end, when it bobs on what feels like bubbly as it stings the eyes, when a batch of victorious French players barge into their manager’s news conference and begin singing his name and hopping and dancing and spraying various liquids in one of the better news-conference moments ever.
The old friend is sports, grotesque while also fantastic and somehow, from Chinese walking bridges to South Africans riding trains to Assyrian-Swedes typing soccer stories, still streaming through a troubled planet as its most cohesive force.
Read more World Cup coverage from The Post: