Australia and Cameroon catch Confederations Cup bug in Russia
ST PETERSBURG -- There were 35,021 spectators at the 68,000 capacity St Petersburg Arena on Thursday, but only a tiny percentage travelled from Cameroon and Australia.
Unsurprisingly, given that it is over 9,000 miles from Australia and over 3,500 from Cameroon, the "home" support for these countries at the Confederations Cup has been somewhat thin on the ground. But some intrepid fans did make the trip to see their teams play out a 1-1 draw that left both with a slim hope of reaching the semifinals if they can win their final game.
They were clearly visible, and it was interesting to notice the age difference between them. The Cameroon fans tended to be very young, while most of the Australians were in their 40s and 50s -- veterans of a lot of tournaments already.
Joshua is a member of the Green & Gold Army, the network of Socceroos fans specialising in trips abroad, and came on a well-organised tour which included hiring a Russian guide to help the group from Sochi to St Petersburg and then Moscow.
"The young fans have most probably been afraid to go to Russia," he told ESPN FC. "But I wasn't worried about this trip. I would be going to support them anywhere, and I feel very welcome in Russia."
Susan, another member of the Green & Gold Army, said: "We have to follow our team throughout their journeys. We've been to Germany and South Africa for the World Cup, and always go to the Asian Cup as well. Russia is a new experience for us, and we hope to be back here for the World Cup next year if Australia manage to qualify."
Susan also follows her club, Melbourne Victory, on their travels in the Asian Champions League, and therefore couldn't afford a very long vacation this summer -- only buying tickets for the three group stage games. The weather has been her only regret so far.
"It is winter time in Australia now and we hoped to experience summer over here," she added. "However, it is even colder in Russia now than back home. That is rather strange."
Ray, Michael and Garry made the long trip from Tasmania on their own.
Three Tasmanians made the long trip to Russia to support Australia. They claim to have drunk too much vodka! pic.twitter.com/ZKF936luYQ— Michael Yokhin (@Yokhin) June 22, 2017
"Football is more popular than rugby in Tasmania, and we are proud to represent our island here. We had to fly to Melbourne, and then stopped at Hong Kong," Michael explained.
"This is an incredible country. St Petersburg is amazingly beautiful, and we are glad to be here. We definitely hope to be back for the World Cup, and would advise everyone to go. Russia is a good place to visit, and we feel at home here. The people are friendly and always willing to help. We had no problems at all."
Importantly, that view is shared by the Cameroonians I met. There have been widespread concerns about racism in Russia but Armand, a Cameroonian businessman from Paris, said: "This country doesn't feel racist at all. I am doing fine here, and I love Russia."
Many of the Indomitable Lions supporters at the Confederations Cup are students who are studying in Moscow.
"It is not easy for students from Moscow to come to St Petersburg [a distance of over 400 miles, which can take up to eight hours on the train], and that is why we don't have a lot of supporters here," Cameroonian journalist David Eyengue Nzime told ESPN FC. "But the Confederations Cup is a minor tournament. We will prepare well for the real thing."
Constantine studies forestry in Moscow and came to St Petersburg wearing a Spartak Moscow jacket. "I have always supported Spartak, and my name here is Kostya [a shortened version of the Russian name Konstantin]," he said. "I like living here."
Konstantin (Kostya in Russian) - a Cameroonian Spartak fan from Moscow came to support his country in St Petersburg. pic.twitter.com/qdQjcaskHz— Michael Yokhin (@Yokhin) June 22, 2017
Vincent, another student, added: "We [Cameroon] are not really successful lately, and winning the African Nations Cup was really important to us. That is why we are so proud to take part in this tournament."
Meanwhile, Cameroon are also getting support from fans of other African nations. Tens of Algerian students from St Petersburg showed their support for Cameroon after the game, hugging Russian fans and posing for countless selfies. "We are all Africans, so we had to be here," Kader, a joyful Algerian, said.
If such spirits can be kept up during the World Cup, no amount of distance will prove a barrier to the thousands of fans who want to experience the world's biggest football event in Russia next year.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin