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World Cup diaries: Watching Russia v Spain in the heart of Siberia

Fans celebrate Russia's winning penalty

12-43 a.m. in Irkutsk, in eastern Siberia. There's a wedding party on in the hotel, and the bar is full of celebrants at the end of a long weekend of festivities. Russian weddings typically start on a Friday and go on till Sunday, the ceremonies lubricated by litres of vodka.

The vodka's effects had surfaced through the penalty shootout, with cheers for each of Russia's converted kicks and for Koke's miss, and loud groans, accompanied by palms waved downwards in the universal expression of disgust, when Spain scored. But there's a hush as Iago Aspas steps up to take his kick. And a half second later wild celebrations as his shot hits Igor Akinfeev's legs and rebounds out.


Also see: World Cup stories: Jayaditya Gupta in Russia


Russia are through, improbably, to the World Cup quarter-finals and just for a few moments that event is bigger in this room than the wedding. The groom is somewhere in the crowd of hugging, shouting Russians; men who had met minutes ago hug each other, as do a couple of boys who are part of the wedding party. The chant goes up: "Ross-ee-ya! Ross-ee-ya!".

Trying to get reactions from them is futile. Emotion, vodka and the language barrier together make articulation impossible. Igor, an engineer from St Petersburg, is the only one who can put his feelings into words. "If they had lost today it would have been okay, we never thought they would come this far. But to beat Spain..."

I almost didn't have this story to write. I'd set out to find a bar screening the match, and walked down Karl Marx Street, Irkutsk's main nightlife district. But the first few I spotted were relatively empty. There was a crowd at The Library, which calls itself "The Intelligent Bar" and has a large picture of Ernest Hemingway as its motif. But they were true to their name, showing a wildlife documentary, and refused my request to change to something as low-brow as World Cup football.

Fans celebrate Russia's first goal.
Fans celebrate Russia's opening goal.

I wondered whether I'd been too optimistic in my search for public screening; after all, this is Irkutsk, in eastern Siberia, 3400 km from the nearest World Cup venue. Maybe it's just not plugged into the tournament. Earlier in the day my guide to Lake Baikal asked me, in all seriousness: "Is the World Cup still on?"

But before panic set in, I got lucky at the BBB Brasserie - a crowd, football and a place to sit. It was outdoors but this was the Siberian summer so a shot of the hard stuff was all I needed. For more reasons than one, as it turned out, because the game was frankly dire. It didn't help that, while the BBB crowd was enthusiastic, many of them seemed to be there for the Belgian beer (10 pages of it on the menu).

Still, the language of sports fandom is universal. The oohs and aahs at appropriate junctures, the groans when Spain scored and the wild celebrations - including obligatory flag-waving - when Russia equalised, kept the game alive for the neutral observer. And loud cheers when Denis Cheryshev, the hero of the opening match that Russia won 5-0 against Saudi Arabia, came on in the 60th minute.

Andrei, sitting on his own smoking a hookah, is wise to the dangers Andres Iniesta poses when he comes on a few minutes later. "Iniesta is dangerous," he says when Akinfeev saves a shot from Spain's midfield maestro towards full time. Then it's the end of 90 minutes, and extra time beckons.

How seats are reserved at BBB bar in Irkutsk
How seats are reserved at BBB bar in Irkutsk

Time for me to shift locations, because I've been told Irkutsk's cab service tends to be iffy after midnight. (Well, it's iffy in Bangalore so I don't blame Irkutsk's cabbies). I move over to the Cedar bar, close to where I'm staying; there's a wedding party on but the bar itself has only a few who either aren't part of the wedding or have had enough of it.

Half an hour of riveting action (not!) and then it's time for penalties. Word has got round the hotel and soon the bar fills up. A groan as Iniesta converts, a roar as Fedor Smolov does the same for Russia. Moments later, it's all over as Akinfeev makes his second save of the shootout.

More than half an hour after Aspas's miss, the streets outside my Irkutsk hotel - in a sleepy business district - are buzzing as cars whizz by, horns blaring and more shouts of "Ross-ee-ya!" Tomorrow may be Monday, the start of the working week, but Irkutsk will party long and hard. Maybe even in The Library.

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