MOSCOW: THE '2018 FIFA WORLD CUP' FINAL

As the 2018 edition of the FIFA World Cup in Russia is approaching its end, this also means the most watched sporting event around the globe will soon reach its climax and crown champion the federation that will win it all. Over a full month, 32 teams and 736 played several matches. In the fashion of a traditional Kalinka, the tension kept amplifying round after round, eliminating teams one after the other until there were only two. The golden ticket to the final match will give the two federations a title shot to the almighty FIFA World Cup Trophy (as per its official name). For this occasion, I am could not miss this chance of attending to the ultimate experience for any true lovers of the beautiful game. This was my second time to attend to a FIFA World Cup. My first experience was back in 2014, when I made the trip from Montreal to Rio de Janeiro and spent the first three weeks of the tournament in the emblematic 'Estadio do Maracana' watching four Group-stage matches and one Round of 16. I've always had it on my mind that I couln't attend to the final despite having witnessed the whole build up. This time, I did it differently. I watched the build up from home and flew to Moscow to attend to final chapter at Match #64!

The worst service ever

It's 5:00pm and I just had time to check into my hotel that I received a message from Arcadio to meet up for dinner. Arcadio is a well-established football journalist in Montreal, Canada and we have been friends for several years now. We both knew we would be in Moscow for the final, so it was a given that we would hang out together. This was the second time that we met at a World Cup. The first time being four years ago in Brazil, when we hung out together with other friends for three full weeks of pure fun on Planet Football.

My hotel is located by a very touristy walking street full of restaurants. We thought we'd walk it up and down to see if one of the choices available would inspire us to a delicious meal. Arcadio thought he'd spotted a nice restaurant further down, so we gave it a shot and went there. At the time, he thought he guessed right. Not only his memory was defective but the service was aweful to a level I had yet to experience before I set foot in that restaurant. As we entered the patio area, we waved at the waiter and requested a table for two. He asked for one minute for him to finish his task before fulfilling our request. Ten minutes later, we are still standing at the entrance with half of the tables around us empty. We finally decided not to wait and invite ourselves at an empty table. Although the waiter had acknowledged our proactivity, it still took us 20 minutes to get the menus, and another 40 to place our orders. Luckily, Arcadio and I had a lot of catching up to do. The last time we met wad at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Here is what we ordered:

Appetizers to share:

  • 3 steamed cheese dumplings
  • 3 steamed ground veal dumplings

Arcadio's meal:

  • Beef steak
  • Glass of red wine (included)

My meal:

  • Boneless lamb skewers with fries

As you can imagine, it took another 45 minutes before getting our food. The first items that came were the main courses. Arcadio's steak didn't look at all like the juicy and tender piece of meat advertuzed on the menu. For myself, I was served a completely different meal than the one I ordered. Instead, I had a few pieces of overcooked chopped lamb on bones, served with fries. Missing in action were Arcadio's glass of wine, any type of condiment for the fries, and of course the appetizers that should have come first. I decided not to complain about the wrong order and ate it anyway. I was simply too hungry. Although I was in the process of filling my stomach, anger was still eating my on the inside. We finally received our appetizers. Not only they didn't look as appetizing as the picture, but they were still dripping water from the steaming. Or did they boil them instead? It sure looked like it when the waiter cam to our table carrying a plate of dumplings sitting on half a centimeter deep of water. Throughout the meal, Arcadio must have asked for his glass of wine 10 times only for the waiter to give him the "one minute" treatment we were already accustomed to. When he finally got his glass, he took a sip, looked at me and simply said "Taste it!". As I kept asking him what was wrong he kept insisting that I took a sip too. When I finally did, I kidd you not, it was a glass of sweetened grape juice! Just like the ones we buy at the supermarket. Outrageous!

If there is one thing I don't miss from Germany, it's definitely the poor customer service. Apparently, Moscow is full of it. If you enjoy being served properly, make sure you do your research before choosing a restaurant, or you might also get hangry from the lack of professionalism some of those restaurants carry.

Red Square

The single item I had on my sightseeing list was the Red Square and its emblematic Saint-Basil's Cathedral.  The following day, I took advantage of my jetlag and woke up at 6:30am. At 7:00am, I was already on my way to the Red Square hoping I would beat the crowd of tourists for a perfect shot. Security is always amplified during any international football event. To access the touristic areas, we must go through an airport-like security scan. Usually, the process goes very smoothly and only takes a few minutes. In the blink of an eye I was walking on the Red Square with the Kremlin to my right and the Saint-Basil's Cathedral before me. What a beautiful scene, which was even more satisfactory that I beat the crowd to it.

Meet the Mexicans

Julio is a colleague of mine based in Herzogenaurach, Germany. I saw his post on Instagram in front of the church, so I decided to reach out to him and see if he had any sightseeing plans in mind. It turns out his travelling schedule was very similar to mine. Therefore, I decided to join him and his group of friends from his hometown in Chihuahua, Mexico. We ended up meeting in front of the ticket office. He was accompanied with his buddy, Luis. Later, after walking around the Kremlin's inner garden and seeing a caravan of 10 cars with tainted windows - which I could only imagine had President Putin in one of them - we left the area and met with the larger group. We continued the sightseeing a little bit more - including a very impressive exposition of collectibles such as a football jerseys from the winning teams and original match tickets from every single edition of the FIFA World Cup. As hunger kept building up, we headed to the Ararat Hyatt Hotel to collect our tickets for the final and heated to a restaurant with a nice patio to get the parry started. We were lucky enough to get a table for ten. At this point, rounds kept coming over and over again until we finally decided to order a bottle. We continued cheering and chsnting with the Croatians some of their chants they gladly taught us. Arcadio joined us a little later and our bunch of happy campers greeted him with the famous "Decime que se siente" chant that was made popular by the Argentinean fians during the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. There was the festive l spirit I was eager to retrieve four years later. Although, it surprised me that while all bars were mostly occupied by Croatian fans, the French were nowhere to be found.

Izmailov Market

On gameday morning, I met the Mexicans at the Izmailov Market - the ultimate spot for souvenir shopping at very reasonable price. We're talking a fraction of what a tourist would pay for the exact same item in a souvenir shop downtown. Only problem.os that this market only operates on Thursdays and Wednesdays. In other words, this was our only chance to go shop there. It took me about 40 minutes of metro to reach the market. When I arrived, I found a colorful assortment of medieval towers that made the market look like a castle. It was quite impressive. After a good two-hour block of browsing, comparing and bargaining, we finally concluded our shopping session and grabbed lunch at a nearby hotel restaurant - also with a crappy customer service - before heading to the Luzhniki Stadium for the match.

Match #64: FRANCE VS. CROATIA

We were finally on our way to the reason that brought us to Moscow in the first place - the ultimate football match!: the 2018 World Cup Final! While riding the metro, all of a sudden we reached a station where all the French supporters seemed to be based. We hadn't seen any French people the whole weekend, but they indeed showed up for the duel. As more French supporters invaded the wagon, I fell face-to-face with two people from the UEFA EURO 2016 organizing committee I had the pleasure to meet in France, back when I volunteered for that very event. What are the chances? Quite a coincidence. But then again, great minds think alike, don't they? Besides, we are all lovers of the beautiful game!

Just out of the stadium, it was a true party with beer selling booths everywhere, brand activation centers for all majors sponsors of the event, street jugglers and DJ's to turn up the tailgate.  We allowed ourselves one last refill before crossing the security scan and turnstile. In the blink of an eye, the Russian military mounted a stage in the centerfield, ready for a performance by Nicky Jam featuring Will Smith and xxx. Once again, the very effective military demounted everything within seconds. It was now time for the main event.

Cafe Pushkin

After the hidious dinner at the restaurant (that shall remain anonymous) on my first evening in Moscow, I was looking forward to compensate by treating myself with a true gastronomic experience. What better way to end our trip in Moscow than to have dinner at Cafe Pushkin - the five-star restaurant ranked in the Top 100 restaurants in the world. While we didn't have any reservation and were left outside melting under 35 degrees at 4:00pm, the hostess worked on finding a table for eight people. She finally managed to place us under the condition that we needed to leave before 6:00pm. Two hours was plenty of time to enjoy a high end meal in a pre-Sovietized Russian aristocratic decor from the years circa 1825. Despite the full menu with items that all sounded delicious, most of us around the table selected a traditional Borscht soup with duck and apple as an appetizer, a Russian tasting menu as a main course, and a honey cake for dessert. The deliciousness of each course, as well as the tip top service, are memories I will cherish for a long time. It amazed me how every time I asked something to the waiter, I followed his answer with a polite "Thank you" and he concluded with a very distinguished "I am at your service, Sir". As you can see, we are very far from the "one minute" treatment from the first evening.

After dinner, we visited a super market that was located in a very ancient building. It was definitely the most beautiful supermarket i have ever seen. To the image of the metro stations and other building of Moscow which their purpose is meant to be functional, any other country would have placed a museum or anything more prestigious at those locations. From there we walked back to the Red Square to enjoy one last drink together - a Moscow Mule sounded like the perfect cocktail for the occasion.