I went to the World Cup for the first time -- and it was even better than I imagined

Harrison Jacobs/Business InsiderCross this one off the bucket list.
  • Attending the FIFA World Cup has been on my travel bucket list since I fell in love with the sporting event in 2010.
  • I was able to get tickets for the 2018 FIFA World Cup through a friend who has attended the last three World Cups.
  • I attended the Poland versus Senegal group stage match. It was incredibly exciting to watch the first African team to win at this year’s tournament.

Like a lot of sports fans, I’ve always dreamed of going to the FIFA World Cup.

Few sporting events conjure up the mix of top-of-the-line talent, global togetherness, and just flat-out unbridled joy that the World Cup does.

I won’t lie – the first World Cup that I really watched was in 2010. At the time, I was travelling through Europe and got to watch the games on giant screens in public squares in Germany, Spain, and the Czech Republic. The enthusiasm that European fans brought to the tournament was contagious and I was hooked. Attending the World Cup went on my travel bucket list.

When a friend of mine from college told me that she and her husband were heading to the Cup this year in Russia, and that they had some extra tickets, I jumped at the chance.

On Tuesday, I attended the Poland versus Senegal match at Spartak Stadium in Moscow, Russia. It was even more exciting than I imagined. You can be sure I’ll be getting to another Cup soon.

Here’s what it was like:

To get to the game, I took the Metro. Moscow’s metro system is one of the biggest and busiest in the world, with a ridership of 2.442 billion in 2017.

Source: Moscow Metro

The trains to the Spartak Stadium, where the Poland versus Senegal game was to be played, had TV screens in each car broadcasting the current game.

The Spartak station was packed when my train got in at around 3:30 p.m. The game wasn’t until 6 p.m., but I wanted to make sure I got in early.

It was practically all Poland fans. They were chanting nonstop as we left the station.

From outside the station, I got my first view of Spartak Stadium. There are 11 host cities for this year’s World Cup. Moscow is the only city to have two stadiums hosting games, Spartak and Luzhniki Stadium. Spartak is practically brand new, having opened in 2014.

I made sure to bring my ticket (duh!) and my Fan ID. In order to get into the stadium, you have to apply online for a Fan ID. It’s a pretty painless process and acts as your visa into Russia.

Judging by the crowd coming out of the Metro, it was going to be a tough day for Senegal. It was a sea of red for Poland.

The area outside the stadium was like a giant party. This group of musicians was playing to a large crowd.

A few Polish footballers were showing off their skills with the soccer balls. One of them started doing wild capoeira flips immediately after.

The Poland fans were dressed in full regalia, with face paint, flags, signs, and head-to-toe red.

A group of Senegal fans were gathered in the grass, singing songs and waving Senegal flags. Their energy was contagious.

Senegal was a major underdog in the match with Poland. As a lifelong Mets fan (I know), I always root for the underdog. So you know who I was pulling for.

Spartak Stadium is home to FC Spartak Moscow, Russia’s most decorated football club. It’s won a record 10 Russian championships and made the semi-finals in the three major European football championships.

Security into the game was very tight. First you have to scan both your Fan ID and your ticket. Then go through metal detectors, a pat down, and an X-ray machine. I had to leave the line because I had brought a pen. I ended up hiding it under a tree because the line for the storage lockers looked to be hours long.

I finally got through security sans-pen and it had started raining. I made a run for the stands.

This guy was standing on stilts outside the stadium. I don’t understand Russian, so I can’t say if he was staff, but if he wasn’t: How did he get the stilts through security?

Spartak Stadium was pretty striking up close. It didn’t have all the amenities that you see in sports stadiums in the US these days (which sometimes feel like giant malls that happen to have a game in the center), but it was definitely a temple to football.

Before heading to my seat, I decided to grab a beer. It cost 350 roubles ($US5.50) a pop, not bad when you are coming from New York. A beer at Yankee Stadium runs $US12 at the cheapest.

I found my section at the top of the stadium. Not that I’m complaining — I was at the World Cup!

Here’s the view from my seats. We may have been about 15 rows from the top, but the view looked pretty good to me. Way better than being in the nosebleeds in Giants Stadium.

The only beer available was Budweiser or, as we call it around my area, Bud Heavy. I’m usually not a fan, but it didn’t taste too bad. The cups had lights on the bottom that illuminated when you put it on a surface.

By the time I got to my seat around 4:30 p.m., the stadium was already half-full. No one wants to be late to a World Cup match.

The screen in the stadium advertised that they had free Wi-Fi. I opted to not use it. It was deathly slow with so many people on it and, besides that, it seemed like an easy way to get hacked.

Of course, the game starts with the national anthem of each country. Poland sang its national anthem first.

The stadium boomed with everyone singing the anthem. Seriously, the stands had to be 99% Poland fans. There were maybe 4 or 5 other Senegal fans in our section.

At least the Poland fans were super-friendly. I was surprised. I’m used to hearing horror stories about soccer hooligans being the worst fans in the world. But at the World Cup, everyone seemed to be in a generous spirit.

Next up was the Senegal national anthem. While there weren’t a ton of fans to sing it, all of the Poland fans clapped gently as it was sung. It was a classy move.

The stands were lined with banners and flags for Poland. As well as a few ones for Russia. I met a few Russian fans just enjoying the game.

Just before kickoff, I decided to take a walk around the stadium. I wanted to buy a Senegal jersey to remember the game, but unfortunately, every souvenir shop was sold out. At least I got to see this view of the field.

While the crowd was definitely pulling for Poland, it seemed like there was sizable group of casual fans pulling for Poland because of the team’s star Robert Lewandowski, who plays for Bayern Munich, one of the most-popular football clubs in the world.

Our section had very coordinated chants. I wish I could relay what they were, but I don’t speak Polish so it’s not going to happen.

It seemed like everyone had a Poland scarf that they were whipping around in the way that Pittsburgh Steelers’ fans do with the Terrible Towels.

There weren’t a ton of Senegal fans, but there was a tight section in the corner near the goal. They were so loud I could hear them from across the stadium.

A Reuters photographer got a closer look. They did not stop singing and dancing from the moment they walked into the stadium until after the game ended.

The first goal came in the 37th minute, and it was Senegal! The referees scored it as an own-goal against Thiago Cionek, but I thought that was cheap ruling. It seemed like Idrissa Gueye’s shot was going in either way, but what do I know?

Considering that I was expecting a Poland blowout, we went absolutely nuts when Senegal scored. This was the best photo I took while we were jumping up and down. That’s the arm of my friend who got us the tickets. He’s a soccer nut from South Africa, so you can imagine how stoked he was to see an African team get a goal.

We were connecting with the Senegal fans a few rows back, but the Poles were not having any of it. This guy in front kept telling me to sit down. Meanwhile, there were four Poland fans standing next to me that he wasn’t bothering.

The second goal came around the 61st minute. Senegal’s M’Baye Niang returned to the pitch after an injury unnoticed. He then intercepted a routine back pass for an easy goal. It was a strange one, but we went crazy.

Watch that play here »

The Poland fans were deep in despair now as the minutes — and their World Cup hopes — ticked away.

The final goal of the game came from Poland in the 85th minute. Grzegorz Krychowiak had a perfect header on a free kick. After 85 minutes of nothing good happening for Poland, the fans unleashed.

Here’s Poland’s goal »

They seemed very happy. Of course, the game ended minutes after. But even so, I saw only high spirits from the crowd. It was all good sportsmanship overall.

As we left the stadium, everyone took their final selfies with the World Cup signs and mascot. So, having done it, would I do it again? Definitely.

I had expected going to the World Cup to be a mess; too many people, out-of-control and belligerent drunks, overpriced everything, and bad sportsmanship.

While I can’t speak for other World Cups – my friend who got the tickets told me that this year’s was by far the best-managed of the three he’s been to – my experience in Russia was pleasant.

The security screening was a bit annoying. I still fail to understand why I couldn’t bring in a pen, when I saw a person carrying in a trumpet. But I guess it’s to be expected with as big of an event as a World Cup game.

Even with seats near the top of the stadium, I could see everything. And the energy of the crowd, even when the majority were losing, was unbelievable. Everyone was positive and having a great time enjoying the game.

I think I’ll have to put attending the World Cup back on the bucket list, if only because I want to see a World Cup game with the USMNT in it. I can’t believe the first World Cup I get to is the first World Cup without the US since 1986.

My luck, eh?

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