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Postcards from Russia: In search of World Cup fever

It's Day 7, and not only does that mean it's the second round of group games, but it's also time to check out who's leading in Ballsupski anti-fantasy football and which famous celebrity will be celebrating their birthday in front of the TV today.

Editor's note: This is the latest of Sam Borden's Postcards from Russia, in which he shares his observations, fears, joys and travel stories from the 2018 World Cup.

KAZAN, Russia -- There were many difficult things about the 2014 World Cup in Brazil -- debilitating traffic in Rio, dangerous flooding in Recife, the occasional worry about being hit by stray rubber bullets as police broke up demonstrations in Sao Paulo -- but something that always made me smile was the way the flights between the cities felt like little miniature World Cup parties.

Everything was soccer-themed. In the airports, there were often signs at the gate waiting areas that welcomed fans from specific countries on to a flight. On two of my flights, the flight attendants wore jerseys while giving their safety briefing, and the captains would give score updates.

On one afternoon, the first officer narrated the final moments of Brazil and Chile's match as we landed in Fortaleza. As soon as we parked at the gate, the entire plane rushed to baggage claim so we could see the penalty shootout. Even those little floor mats in the jetway were made to look like tiny soccer fields.

In Russia, there is plenty of excitement around the stadiums and main tourist centers, but I haven't seen much in the travel sector. Over the weekend, when I traveled to Kazan for France vs. Australia, the scene at Domodedovo airport was as grim and depressing as any morning at a jam-packed, short-on-security-personnel JFK or Heathrow. When I checked in for my flight on S7 Airlines (that's the new, modern name for Siberian Airlines), the woman behind the counter couldn't have been less interested in the fact that that just about everyone in the line behind me was wearing either blue (France) or yellow (Australia).

"Are you traveling to Kazan for business?" she asked me, in a respectable effort at English, as she made her way through a series of (presumably) routine questions.

"Yes, I'm covering France and Australia in the World Cup," I told her, trying to be friendly. "I think all these folks are going down there and it's their first match so they're pretty excit..."

She cut me off. "Did you pack your bags yourself?"

Welcome to Russia! A sculpture of Zabivaka the Wolf, the official World Cup mascot, gets his pride on at Sochi International Airport.
Welcome to Russia! A sculpture of Zabivaka the Wolf, the official World Cup mascot, gets his pride on at Sochi International Airport.

Past security, there were the usual assortment of Russian souvenirs with a small assortment of World Cup items, but little pomp besides that. Neither at the gate nor on the plane did anyone revel in the World Cup glow (other than a group of Australians who, I'm guessing, had simply arrived at the airport and continued their drinking from the night before). When we landed in Kazan, the pilot noted that we were now in Tatarstan and that it was quite a bit warmer than in Moscow before thanking us for flying with S7.

Now, to be fair, the most important thing is that we took off, flew and landed safely (and on time!), so I don't want to sound as if the lack of World Cup fever on the planes (or on the subways, which are similarly efficient but also largely devoid of World Cup touches) is critical. In truth, the fans here do plenty to provide a mood. While deplaning in Kazan, I fell into a conversation with a group of young Australians who were debating the relative merits of darker beers and lighter beers as pre-match beverages.

They were all in their 20s, traveling with backpacks and nothing more. They were all quite pleased to get out of Moscow and see another city. They broke into an exuberant chant as we approached the airport exit, shouting and singing and marching through a crowd of stone-faced customs agents.

"How have you found the mood in Russia?" I asked one guy beneath the din, and he put his arm around my shoulder.

"It's fine, but it doesn't matter," he shouted. "We bring the mood anyway."

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