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FIFA World Cup Final 2018

#4 World Cup Final in Moscow: July 2018

The months leading up to the World Cup’s kickoff in June were marked by so many extraordinary storylines that we were left to wonder if we would somehow be Red Menaced while meeting and mingling with Muscovites over shots of vodka and shots on goal.

These headlines included, but were by no means limited to Sports Illustrated’s, “World Cup Fans Will Be Allowed to Have Marijuana, Cocaine, Heroin in Stadiums—With a Prescription,” The Moscow Times, “World Cup Host Russia Must Brace for Lone Terrorist Attacks, Analyst Warns,” and the U.K.’s Daily Express, “World Cup 2018 Bloodbath: Russian hooligans warn England fans ‘Prepare to Die.’

Despite such articles stoking pre-Cup hysteria, any apprehension was more than outflanked by our sense of adventure. Could there be a bigger spectacle than the world’s biggest sporting event of the year, let alone one held in a country carrying with it tremendous intrigue?

The single biggest challenge before departing was securing our tickets for the Final.  After considerable handwringing and wrangling, we scored a pair from our hosts/colleagues that were destined to provide us a great vantage point.

By the time we left for Moscow for the final week of the tournament, powerhouses Germany, Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, and Spain had been eliminated, to say nothing of the USMNT, Italy, Holland and Chile which failed to qualify altogether.  This resulted in unlikely, yet captivating semi-finals consisting of Belgium (#3 FIFA ranking heading into the World Cup) versus France (#7) and England (#13) versus Croatia (#18).

FIFA World Cup Final 2018

We immediately learned three things upon spending our initial afternoon in Moscow. First was that the city offered the most amazing fresh squeezed grapefruit juice — bar none (bar all?), yielding the best greyhounds ever, especially when made with Beluga Gold Vodka. Second was that each of the remaining countries boasted a strong and vocal contingent of fans on the ground. Finally, the vast majority of hardcore and casual soccer fans, along with the general Russian population, carried a very open and clear distain for the French, a perspective that came back to haunt me later in the week.

Our first day also carried with it an epiphany rooted in our need to devise a succession plan for our Bucket List. In short, we realized the need to devise a contingency plan should one of us not be able to fulfill the commitment to make all 25 events before the age of 75. The covenant, to be refined and memorialized down the road, would ensure that an immediate family and/or the closest of friends would step in and pinch hit for the departed degenerate, allowing for the completion of all remaining events.

With our business now complete we were able to focus on Day 2, dubbed the Beluga Bar Crawl. This crawl, in and around Red Square, took us to some of the nicer bars in the area. However, numerous dive bars were not overlooked as what they lacked in ambiance was more than made up for by the curiosity shown us by the bartenders, particularly the one befuddled by my inadvertently leaving the equivalent of an 18-cent tip.

For the sake of full disclosure, currency conversion (routinely with greyhound in hand) proved not only to be my consistent weakness, but it also resulted in the trip being far more expensive than my initial forecast. Probably should have paid more attention to the difference between multiplication and division back in grade school.

Upon fully settling into Moscow, we began to meet and mingle with the locals, the most memorable of which was our comrade Alex, whom we met at the Cross Keys Pub as part of a watch party for the England/Croatia semi-final. After six hours of drinking and watching England’s (inevitable) loss, he managed to mumble, “Two Americans in an Irish pub in Moscow watching Croatia play England while drinking vodka made in Iceland. I like.” Not sure what we mumbled back to him but it resulted in additional vodka shots.

Recognizing the need to soak up a different form of Russian culture, we enjoyed an amazing tour of the Kremlin. This history lesson was steeped in artifacts from its Armory, ranging from clothes, crowns, and carriages, to Faberge Eggs. It was also amazing to see the cathedrals within as they marked the circle of life, each emphasizing an important stage such as birth, the coming of age, coronation, and death. We later celebrated this history at the Beluga Caviar Bar in adjoining Red Square.

As our attention turned to gameday, we began asking about and discussing the extent to which what we had been witnessing on the ground for nearly a week was a facade.  The city was spotless and any semblance of the homeless or working girls had been as systematically washed away as the roads were twice daily by meticulous street sweepers. The extent to which what we were seeing was contrived was hard to tell, but little doubt remained that Moscow would look markedly different in the immediate aftermath of the tournament. Our guess was that it was somewhere between the Russian version of “The Today Show” and “The Truman Show.”

Alas, gameday was upon us! With a little help from our friends and the Nike Store, we proudly dawned our respective adoptive home countries. George shaved his head and became a face and skull painting Croatian loyalist wearing a customized Modric jersey. I opted for a generic French jersey, complemented by far more modest face painting (a French flag adorning each cheek), a scarf commemorating the final, and an FFF hat. Although FFF officially stands for the French Football Federation it was made abundantly clear to me that most would be supportive of adding a fourth “F” to the national governing body, myself included.

Given our attire and location the Metro ride to Luchnizki Stadium felt surreal. Before long, the numerous selfies and other photos had been taken, and we had navigated seamlessly into our seats. To our left were Brazilians, to our right were Brits, in front of us were Mexicans, and behind us was Moscow.

Having taken a 2-1 halftime lead, France ultimately prevailed 4-2 in one of the best World Cup finals in recent memory. The post-game monsoon could dampen neither the enthusiasm shown by the French supporters nor the outward contempt shown them by everyone else.

The revelry spilled onto the streets throughout Moscow and, not surprisingly, we were caught up in it. With beer, whiskey, and champagne flowing and fans openly partying in the streets and on the sidewalks, we found ourselves in an impromptu celebration that included trading my recently acquired French jersey for that of a Mexican one bearing the name of Marquez – whoever that is.

Importantly, the names proved far less important than the experience. The nations proved far less meaningful than the people behind them. And Russia proved for the moment to be far less formidable than these two Americans had anticipated.

As the World Cup came to a close Vladimir Putin declared that, “The myths and stereotypes (surrounding Russia) have been dispelled.”

Who were we to argue with this noodle scratching statement?

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