Before football comes home, it had to stop by the beach. Russia fans had one last chance on Sunday night to savour a squad that had already shattered all their expectations for this tournament. And they did it again in a bittersweet valedictory in Vladimir Putin’s dream city by the sea.
All the best stories are comings-of-age, and Russia seemed to grow with each match, teaching a sceptical public that it was OK to believe again, that they wouldn’t suddenly embarrass them, that this time things would be different.
It left pretty much everyone here asking the same question: where on earth did this side come from? Pressing a more gifted Croatia squad, belting in sublime curlers from 25 yards, nodding in equalisers in the 115th minute?
“Guys! I am proud of you! I love you! Savour this moment!” yelled striker Artem Dzyuba in a fiery speech that mirrored a nation’s emotions just before Russia went out on penalty kicks.
Long before that moment, high up in the stands, fans were starting to believe too.
“Cheryshev hit that one like Ronaldo!” said Semyon, 23, who was still marvelling over the left winger’s wonder-strike as he grabbed snacks at half-time. “Oh my God, could you imagine he could do that?”
“I think England must be worried about facing us,” said Anton Sashnikov, planning for the semi-final clash that ultimately wasn’t to be. “Our guys are playing with intensity, they really want to win. I don’t think that England will be able to keep up.”
There is more in common between the England and Russia fan than either would like to admit, a complex that comes down to the simple belief that someone at some moment is going to lose his man or shank a penalty. Both have found redemption in this year’s World Cup.
“And from there it’s just one more match and we are the champions,” Sashnikov said and he smiled, as though daring a reporter to tell him that wasn’t likely.
Saturday’s match was the reason many people bother going to see football. If you looked up the Fifa rankings, there was no question who should have won. But ultimately it came down to a question of slight angles and dashes of momentum, and the tears that came after Russia’s heartbreaking loss were more about frustration than condemnation.
“If Modric’s penalty had just gone a few centimetres further out,” one fan groaned as he went down the steps, listing off a series of other counterfactuals that could have given Russia the win.
Not all fairytales have happy endings.
Across Russia, fans packed bars, pubs and the World Cup fan zones to watch the team’s unlikely push to make the semi-final. In Samara, where earlier England had beaten Sweden to provide the opposition for the winners of Russia v Croatia, the vast fanzone was closed as it was full to capacity, and crowds spilled out of restaurants and bars with screens, desperate to catch a glimpse of the action.
At Na Dne, a beer hall near the banks of the Volga, the inside was packed and sweaty, and a hundred-strong crowd jostled for position outside to see through the grimy windows, cheering on their team. After Cheryshev’s early goal, one man fell to the ground and screamed, “Stanislav, I’m sorry I doubted you,” referring to the widespread pre-tournament disdain for coach Stanislav Cherchesov. There were scenes of joy as the unexpected extra-time equaliser was scored, and groups of men tossed their beers in the air and screamed with excitement.
But after Croatia prevailed on penalties, there was a shocked silence, and people began to file home, quietened and depressed.
Outside the stadium in Sochi, there was something like a dialogue. “Smolov is a jackass!” yelled one teenager. “Hey, don’t curse our guys, they gave it their all tonight,” a middle-aged man with a ponytail said and continues on his way. “Igor Igor Akinfeev! Oh!” another man yells. “Igor, come here I’d like to have a word with you,” howled a woman, playing the disappointed wife, tottering down the street in heels. Her friends laughed tipsily.
People have different ways of dealing with grief.
For some, that involved a long walk along Sochi’s rocky shoreline, maybe with a bar of plombir ice cream or a midnight swim in the Black Sea. And for some, it involves sending your wife and two girls home to the hotel, and knocking back a few at a summertime cafe that sells grilled meats and the local unfiltered ale.
Aleksandr, who declined to give a last name, had driven three days to Sochi in his Toyota Highlander from Khanty-Mansiysk, where he owns a security company, for a beach vacation with his family. He’d neglected until the last minute to tell his wife that he had also bought a ticket to Saturday’s match.
“She wasn’t happy about that,” he admitted.
But the match was worth it, he said, despite the cost of the ticket, the days spent behind the wheel and the marital strife it occurred.
“I think this is as far as we were allowed to go,” he said, suggesting that all this is decided from above. “What would Russia be doing in a semi-finals at a World Cup? So I can understand why we lost. But you know I was just hoping that this time, maybe we’d slip through.”