KAZAN, Russia (AFP) – World Cup fever is finally taking hold in Russia, where wild enthusiasm in provincial centres such as chilly Kazan is filtering through to Moscow ahead of today’s (11pm Brunei time) opening match in the capital.
While curious locals have clamoured to see the likes of Lionel Messi and Neymar, it has proved a slow build-up to the June 14-July 15 showpiece, which is being held in Russia for the first time.
The tournament opener featuring Russia and Saudi Arabia at the imposing 80,000-capacity Luzhniki stadium has so far failed to capture the imagination of Muscovites, although they have warmly welcomed foreign fans.
Groups of South American supporters with drums and whistles took to the streets around Red Square this week, posing for pictures with shoppers.
In response, a small knot of local fans gathered, waving flags and good-naturedly chanting “Russia, Russia”.
But it has been outside the capital where enthusiasm for the beautiful game has really taken hold.
Australia were pleasantly surprised on Monday when a crowd of 3,200 turned up to see Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk put the Socceroos through their paces in Kazan, a two-hour flight east of Moscow.
A public holiday gave fans the opportunity to show their support at Australia’s state-of-the-art training complex in the capital of the semi-autonomous Republic of Tatarstan.
“It was good to see all the fans from Kazan come out and support us, we didn’t really expect it,” said Australia defender Josh Risdon, who postponed his honeymoon following his selection to the Socceroos’ squad.
“Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Go, Go, Go,” screamed sections of the crowd, many waving yellow and green Australia flags handed out by organisers. Risdon appreciated the backing ahead of Australia’s Group ‘C’ campaign against Euro 2016 finalists France at the Kazan Arena on Saturday.
In the Black Sea resort city of Sochi about 5,000 people turned out to watch the Brazilian squad train, chanting the name of Paris Saint-Germain star Neymar.
Croatia had barely touched down in Russia before they launched a charm offensive that won over supporters at Roshchino outside Saint Petersburg.