Russia doing its best to shed preconceived notions at 2018 World Cup
YEKATERINBURG, Russia -- There is no quick way or short cut through passport control at Moscow's Domododevo Airport. If you want the cliched welcome to Russia, just stand in line with your documents and visa in neat order and wait for a humourless guard to keep you waiting (and sweating) for longer than is necessary before sending you on your way, just as you were beginning to fear being escorted to a dimly-lit side room.
When I arrived in Russia early last week for the World Cup, I knew what to expect following several previous trips to the country for Champions League or Confederations Cup games. And despite all of the cheery Russia 2018 imagery of mascots, fan zones and huge posters of either Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo smiling down at you, the same old Cold War-style "welcome" greeted me at the immigration desk.
Here we go again, was the immediate thought that sprung to mind.
Russia has many issues to address with the outside world and one of them is the image it projects beyond its borders. It does not appear to be a friendly place. It can be dark, grey and miserable, its politicians forceful, brusque and belligerent. Thanks to the events in Marseille during Euro 2016, its football supporters are now regarded across the world as violent hooligans.
Russian football is also tainted by a racism problem, with the national federation fined by FIFA as recently as May following the discriminatory chanting at France's black players during an international friendly in St. Petersburg.
So when I handed my passport over at Domododevo, it felt like Russia was doing its best to live up to its stereotype, the attitude that says, "If you don't like us, then we really don't like you." But after 10 days at Russia 2018, having travelled through Moscow, south to Volgograd and to Yekaterinburg, this World Cup's most easterly host city, it is clear to me that the country is showing its real self rather than the Soviet-era image many envisioned.
The country is not changing; rather, it is simply that Russians are being themselves while the outsiders are discovering that all of their own misconceptions are based on nothing more than outdated -- and misinformed -- opinions of the country.
One journalist colleague, a Belgian tasked with reporting on his country's Group G rivals, arrived in Volgograd for the England versus Tunisia game at the weekend having rented an apartment in the city. The Russian owners not only offered to collect him from the airport but also printed a map highlighting local restaurants, supermarkets and the location of cash machines. None of that was in the brochure when he booked, but his hosts were simply keen to be as hospitable as many other Russians have been.
England fans in Volgograd spoke of how they were embarrassed to have so badly misjudged their hosts. They cited the events of Marseille, of course, and also blamed the media for "scare stories" that influenced their opinions and deterred many thousands of fellow English supporters from travelling to this World Cup. Less than 3,000 England fans watched the game against Tunisia in Volgograd but having decided, seemingly against their better judgement, to fly to Russia, those that did make the journey had been blown away by the friendly welcome.
"They can't do enough for us," said Paul from Nottingham, who had been in Marseille when English fans were attacked by Russian hooligans.
"They have been really lovely people and I'm personally annoyed that I allowed myself to think it would be difficult here."
Politically, Russia is at odds with some of the nations competing in this World Cup, with both the Australian and UK governments boycotting the competition by refusing to send politicians to games. But Russia's people appear determined to let their actions, rather than the politicians' words, do the talking.
Whether it is hotel staff offering their own mobile phone number to enable you to gain access to the internet -- it is frustratingly difficult to do so without a Russian phone -- or commuters on the Moscow Metro taking time to help you navigate a system still largely signposted in Cyrillic letters, Russians have been desperate to help.
One taxi driver in Volgograd, speaking through broken English, summed up what seems to be the mood of the majority of Russians.
First of all, he began with football, laughing about when his team, Rotor Volgograd, eliminated Manchester United from the UEFA Cup in 1995. "Even your goalie scored," he said, recalling Peter Schmeichel's late header for United.
But he went on to ask "why so few English fans in Volgograd? Why are you scared?"
"We are just the same," he said. "We work, we like beer and family and football. We are not the politicians." And then, with what seems to be the stock question of every taxi driver in Russia during this World Cup, he asked, "Do you like Russia?"
My answer was simple. "Yes, it's a great country and I have enjoyed every minute of being here."
The Russians just want the rest of the world to see them as normal people, the same as everybody else, and this World Cup is proving that to be beyond doubt.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_