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Graveyard of the giants

Priyansh | Updated on July 13, 2018 Published on July 13, 2018

End of play: A dejected fan in Kazan after Brazil was outdone by a Belgian side that caught the title contenders off-guard with its tactical shifts.   -  Reuters

World Cup action has shifted from Kazan to the bigger venues, minus three former champs

“I hope I’m not disturbing you,” said my co-passenger Marat, early on during the 16-hour train ride from Moscow to Kazan. He was, but I chose to be polite and answered in the negative. Marat took that as cue to be chatty. “I am a Tatar Russian,” he said. Since I was visiting his hometown a second time on work, I could get a sense of what he was trying to convey. Kazan, after all, is a city proud of its Tatar heritage, a place determined to stand out from the rest.

Kazan residents need not go out of their way to emphasise the city’s difference. Over the past few weeks, at the World Cup in Russia, Kazan has become a graveyard of the giants. Reputations have slipped off the tracks here, and I am not talking about tipsy journalists who broke into a dance at the media dinner. The Kazan Arena, with its saucer-shaped roof, has doled out one heartbreak after another: Germany, Argentina and Brazil, teams with 11 World Cup trophies among them, have crashed out at the stadium. Kazan remains distinct for its part in making this the first World Cup in history without any of the three former champions in the semi-finals.

In fact, one need not look far beyond the playing arena to understand the distinct history of Kazan. The media centre, where the hacks congregate, hosted a small counter to promote tourism in Tatarstan. It was a novelty, as was the variety of food on offer. Öçpoçmaq, stuffed pastry with minced meat and potatoes, was much in demand, so too the chak-chak for those with a sweet tooth.

To learn more about Kazan, it is best to begin with a visit to the Qolsharif mosque, a few kilometres to the south. Rebuilt in 2005, the mosque has for centuries been a symbol of religious confluence in the region. Since the St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow has been shunted out of public view during the World Cup to restrict footfall, those who travelto Kazan can find in the Qolsharif a structure bearing striking architectural similarity to the Cathedral.

However, the drama that unfurled at the Kazan Arena has few parallels. It began when Germany played into a resilient South Korean team, which shocked the favourites with late goals. It was for the fourth time in the past five editions that the defending champion bowed out in the group stage. Fans had barely come to terms with this shock exit when an energetic France overran Argentina to oust the 2014 runner-up in a thrilling contest. A week later, Brazil was outdone by a Belgian side that caught the title contenders off-guard with its tactical shifts and unyielding effort.

The results altered the World Cup in several ways. Brazil’s defeat meant that no player in the semi-finals had the experience of playing on that World Cup stage before. Germany’s exit proved to be a precursor to the surprises that followed. Though Argentina’s departure was not altogether unexpected, the defeat revealed how far behind the heavyweight in international football had fallen in a short span of time.

The surprises on the pitch meant that the artists in the city had their task cut out. Continuing a ritual from last year’s Confederations Cup, a mural of Lionel Messi came up close to the hotel that hosted the Argentinian side. It certainly was not a good omen. The Brazilians should have known better when the same was done for Neymar. The curse of the Kazan artists lives on.

The shocks, however, did not entirely dampen the atmosphere in Kazan. On Bauman Street, the city’s promenade named after the revolutionary Nikolai Bauman, Brazilian fans invaded bars with gusto; after the loss, it was their place of choice to drown their sorrows. For them and many others, another World Cup had failed to deliver on the promise of glory.

Yet, there was something to be cherished. For a city that prides itself as the sports capital of Russia, it was only appropriate that historic incursions on the football pitch were analysed in detail on its streets.

After the Brazil-Belgium quarter-final, curtains came down on the World Cup in Kazan. The press pack moved to their next destination; and the denouement of the World Cup became a more pressing concern than the sentimental pangs that played out in Kazan Arena.

But Kazan has left its signature on the World Cup. Volunteers gathered for one final picture, friendships made over the past months went through pangs of separation. Some let the tears flow, others captured the images that would stay with them.

The World Cup has moved to venues with grander pretensions, but Kazan left us with the greatest stories.

This city does not have to vouch for its difference anymore.

Priyansh is an independent writer based in New Delhi, currently in Russia for the World Cup

Published on July 13, 2018
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