As a student of history, and Russian (or Soviet) history in particular, I find it remarkable in ways to be writing this from my hotel room in Nizhny Novgorod, not far from the impressive new stadium which is hosting six 2018 World Cup games. When I was born, less than 40 years ago, this city, 466 kilometers East of Moscow, was known as Gorky and it was a 'closed city'. It was hard for foreigners to get into the Soviet Union in the first place, but Gorky was off limits, with strict restrictions even on native visitors. A significant military and auto industry hub, Gorky was where dissident and Nobel Laureate Andrei Sakharov was exiled in the 1980's.
30 years ago the Soviet Union existed, and I bet if you told a Communist Party member in Gorky in 1988 that Communism would collapse and the FIFA World Cup would be coming to your city as part of an open world, they probably would have thought you were a Martian. Of course suspicion and tension remains between Russia and the West, but hopefully the World Cup will build a positive legacy for change, led by people. The locals here couldn't be nicer. A policeman approached me today as I was trying the find my bearings and asked if he could help. Today, Nizhny reminds me of any other European city, albeit bathed in Soviet high rise architecture, with a functionality to the buildings, shops and the Metro. Historical giants such as Lenin remain revered (above) and cathedrals such as the Alexander Nevsky (below) lend a timeless beauty to the fifth largest city in Russia.
What gives me the most glow as a journalist at this World Cup is thinking about the tides of historical change; watching Argentinian and Croatian fans flocking to a former closed city they don't know much about, in the case of the South Americans, 13,862 kilometers from Buenos Aires.
I think about how I took a sleeper train here from Moscow and met a Colombian fan who is going to as many matches as he can. When I woke up this morning after the Argentina v Croatia game, he had already flown to Saint Petersburg to catch Brazil v Costa Rica.
I think about my taxi ride to the Chkalov stairs (below), the longest staircase in Russia, built in honour of the victorious battle of Stalingrad, the decisive moment of World War 2, and observing the driver wearing a 'Sweden' t-shirt following their game against South Korea. I laughed at him shout 'Whiskey', when I told him I was from Ireland. I shouted back 'Russian Vodka' and we had the craic, exchanging footballers names and nodding. Meeting that guy made me smile inside. Nobody here speaks English, and the translate function on Google is one of the great recent technological inventions.
Of course we are here for the football, and Nigeria's win over Iceland has given Argentina some hope of salvation. Beat Nigeria in their final Group D game and if Iceland fail to defeat Croatia in return, then Lionel Messi and company will be into the last 16. They have a bullet in the chamber now and they need to use it, rather than shooting themselves, which is what they did in the 3-0 humbling by Croatia.
Lionel Messi looks like a man carrying not just a team, but a nation on his shoulders. He seems to be weary of the comparisons with Pele and Maradona (both World Cup winners) and he's not embracing the pressure. Cristiano Ronaldo preens, he indulges, he would eat himself, he encourages, he berates, he engages in theatrics. When Portugal are playing he is always part of the environment, even without the ball. In other words, he leads. In my mind, Messi is a better footballer, clearly the best on earth, but his air of resignation was evident last night, assisted by mad scientist manager Jorge Sampaoli, who changed personnel and the formation yet again. The tinkering was as stable as Argentina's confidence, in other words, non existent, and goalkeeper Willy Caballero set the Ghost Train in motion. It was a completely disjointed performance, as Luka Modric galvanized Croatia superbly. I think we all want Messi and company to go as far as possible in the World Cup; we want the best to be the best and their amazing fans deserve the spin. However, as Mo Salah will attest, there is no room for sentimentality in top level sport and Argentina need a major response or it's adios. The prayers of Pope Francis may not be enough.
At least sunny, optimistic, happy England are coming into town, believing they will beat Panama on Sunday, which they should, as manager Gareth Southgate gets the chance to test the likes of Marcus Rashford and Ruben Loftus Cheek ahead of a potential Group G decider with Belgium. It's not quite '1966 and all that' for England yet, but you can sense the dam bursting across the water to just get completely carried away. There will be goals, how could there not be after the lack of a goalless draw in the first 26 games of the tournament! I don't know what the passion or indifference levels are like for the World Cup back home in Ireland, but right here, as the hard rock bar that I passed today described perfectly, it's Hell Yeah!