Unusually for an American, I have always been interested in Russia and European football. I grew up playing “soccer”, and I spent 14 years of my life living in St. Petersburg, Russia (2000-2014). Thus, there was no way I could let myself miss the opportunity to see the World Cup in person this summer. It took a lot of effort and luck to get there, and it was worth it ten-fold! Here’s a look at my experience.
Making it in Russia
I grew up in the state of Massachusetts, in “the boonies”. Then we hosted a Russian exchange student from Siberia for a year in 1997 when I was a senior in high school. I started studying Russian for the first time during my second year in college. Finally, I studied abroad in St. Petersburg, arriving in February 2000, at a semester-long immersion program at St. Petersburg State University. I attended classes, I lived in the Russian dormitory, I went to Russian parties, and I worked my butt off in the library. All of a sudden I started speaking, reading, and even writing some Russian.
Eventually, I earned a master’s degree in Russian Language and Literature from St. Petersburg State University, and the sky was the limit for me as a Russian-speaking foreigner in St. Petersburg. Of the many jobs I did in Russia, the best was working for local football club FC Zenit as their English website editor for four years.
Thus, this World Cup was obviously the perfect storm for me – my city, my sport, my people. I wanted to see all my old friends in St. Petersburg, and I wanted to be at the stadium and be part of all the action in person. I wasn’t going to miss this for anything.
The long and winding road
Originally, I was interested in working as a Team Liaison Manager, a job vacancy that FIFA posted in August of 2017. The problem was, I didn’t have a Russian work visa, and the Local Organizing Committee wasn’t ready to make one for me. Furthermore, I would have had to spend a large chunk of time in November, March, and May in Russia even before the World Cup started, and I wasn’t ready to leave my family for so long.
I went back to the drawing board. I wanted to find a way both to be present at the World Cup matches, and to contribute to the tournament from within. That’s when I decided to give volunteering a shot. According to the FIFA website, there would be 17,040 volunteers at the World Cup in Russia. A true Red Army. I knew I had a shot.
The application process was no easy affair. It took a lot of time to complete the electronic application, which I did back in December 2017. Fortunately, I had consulted with a friend from FC Zenit who was now working for FIFA, and he gave me some tips about how to increase my chances of being selected. One hard part was choosing which function I wanted to work in. The choices were Accreditation, Ticketing, Media Operations, Information Technology, Hospitality, Catering, Language Services, Marketing Operations, Doping Control, Arrivals and Departures, Protocol, and others… But choose the wrong one, and you could be volunteering to meet tired soccer fans arriving at the airport at 4:00 a.m. Or you could be stranded outside the stadium monitoring the parking areas. Either way, you’re not going to see any football!
I indicated Marketing Operations as my top choice, followed by Language Services and Media Operations. First, I had to wait about a month for any response to my application, then I had to wait another month to get interviewed from St. Petersburg by Skype. The interview was awful! All the questions were negative, I couldn’t portray myself in the best light, and I had to do it at 6:30 a.m. because of the 9-hour time difference between St. Petersburg and my current home of Duluth, Minnesota.
St. Petersburg, I’m on my way finally!
Finally, in late March, I found out I had been accepted to Marketing Operations! April was a glorious month, until I saw my staff shift schedule — 23 shifts in 40 days. Shifts could be eight, nine, or ten hours long… With no pay. And it still wasn’t clear to me what I would actually be doing. Still, I was psyched just to have the opportunity to be going to my first World Cup. I spent a lot of time making my Russian visa in April and May (the visa was free, but I had to pay for my own plane tickets). Finally, on June 3rd, I got on the plane to St. Petersburg. I took my wife (she’s Russian!) and my kids (also born in Russia!) with me too, which meant I couldn’t take advantage of the dormitory that FIFA gave me a bed in. My roommates were from Ethiopia, Australia, and India. The beds were a half meter apart, and there was barely space for 2 people to walk past each other in the room. Of course I chose living with my family instead, and we rented an apartment in downtown St. Petersburg.
Jackpot and new friends
Once I started volunteering, I realized right away that I had hit the jackpot. The Marketing Operations office was right beside the “Team A” locker room (for the teams of Morocco, Russia, Brazil, Nigeria, Sweden, France, and Belgium in the seven matches I worked at). My accreditation gave me access to the Field of Play, Competition Area (locker rooms and player tunnel), Operation Area (FIFA offices), Media Area, Stadium Media Centre, and Hospitality Area. I could go almost anywhere, and trust me, security checked your accreditation every step of the way.
I hit the jackpot in other ways too. There were 23 volunteers altogether in Marketing Operations, and I can honestly say I enjoyed working and talking and spending time with every one of them. I was one of the older volunteers, but there were several others in their 30s like me. Many of the other volunteers had just graduated from university this spring. A few were still students. The people I worked with made the tournament special for me. Best of all, I got to speak Russian all day long, every day.
The daily grind — World Cup style
On days when there were no matches, we did things like check that all the signage in the stadium had the right appearance. We walked, and walked, and walked. St. Petersburg Stadium is huge. It took 25 minutes to circle the whole stadium once on the outside. Other days we had to stick numbers onto all of the temporary seats that FIFA built for the tournament. But it was a pleasure to converse and have fun together as a team, even when doing these mundane tasks.
On match days, I had three tasks: 1. Assisting with stadium tours for sponsors and their guests, 2. Checking the commercial displays of our sponsors outside the stadium, and 3. Assisting our Youth Program (the children who escort the players onto the field in the pre-match ceremony).
On the stadium tours, we took guests into the team locker rooms, showed them the pitch, and took them to the press center. The guests took photos everywhere they went. I didn’t lead the tour – I was there to chat with the guests and make sure they had a good time. We also watched to make sure they didn’t run onto the field or cause any other trouble.
Checking the commercial displays was nothing more than hanging out with all the fans outside the stadium and making sure the sponsors’ stands were operating properly. We checked that no unlicensed products were being sold at the stadium.
Assisting the Youth Program was fun – we spent hours on end with the five-, six-, and seven-year-olds who were to escort the players onto the pitch before the game. The kids rehearsed their roles for the pre-match ceremony, using us as pretend players. Then we played with the kids and entertained them. Mainly I played soccer with the kids in our big Youth Program room.
All three tasks involved conversing with fans, meeting people, showing people a good time, and being right in the thick of the World Cup atmosphere. We even had a tour called the “Final Whistle Tour”, which meant taking sponsor guests to watch the last fifteen minutes of the match from the very side of the pitch. I got to work on this tour once, at the Argentina-Nigeria match, when Argentina scored in the 86th minute to win 2-1. It was incredible seeing the whole stadium go wild right from the field.
My truly terrific experience
But probably my greatest personal experience came on the day of the Russia — Egypt match. I was told the night before that I wouldn’t be working with my Marketing Operations colleagues for the match. Instead, I was the one person from our team assigned to carry out the flags at the pre-match ceremony. The day of the match, I was told I would be carrying the Russian flag! In St. Petersburg. At the World Cup. The flag was huge, and 40 of us carried it out together. I spent about five minutes on the pitch, holding the Russian flag during the national anthem, with the whole stadium singing together. It was an amazing feeling. I’m sure I’m the only American who’s ever had that experience in Russia.
Overall, my impression of the World Cup from beginning to end was sensational. I had a tremendous personal experience, obviously, but I was even more happy for Russia, and for all the foreign fans, who got to see the real Russia, not the Russia the media shows us. It was an incredible feeling being surrounded by Colombians and Peruvians on Nevsky Prospekt. It was an incredible feeling watching the Moroccans and Iranians support their teams for 90 minutes straight in their opening match, keeping the energy and the noise going constantly. It was incredible seeing Russia, which I consider as much my home as the United States, hosting the whole world, and showing people from every country what an awesome place Russia is. I felt great pride everywhere I went – for myself, for my family, and for Russia. It was a truly terrific experience.