I’ve always enjoyed watching sport abroad, and not just because I like the sport, but it has always been one of the best ways to integrate with locals in their regular daily lives. From tail gate parties at the NFL in New York, to the Istanbul derby and a local village football match in the Tanzanian jungle, it’s always been a highlight of my trips.
My experiences of Russian football fans at the Euros in summer (and no, the English or Marseille locals weren’t much better themselves) led to me to turn to ice hockey instead, and what a contrast it was.
We bought tickets to watch SKA v Severspol online the day before the match for 400 RUB (£5) each, and were shocked when we left the suburban metro station next to the stadium. Compared to St. Petersburg’s stunning architecture, we were suddenly back in Soviet style apartment blocks, at a heaving transport hub during rush hour.
Clauds was in her element photographing the old babushkas selling tut and food outside the station, but we were both struck by the family environment of the match day feel. Any nerves of the football style hooligans completely dissipated at the ground.
After tearing Clauds away from her new best friend, we got into the stadium to buy a beer, watch all the kids queue of up for photos with the many mascots and the men queue up for photos with the many cheerleaders. There were no beer or food queues, no tetchy drunken men fighting to get served first, and it all felt rather pleasant.
The music and lighting before and during the hockey itself is all very in your face, very similar to the NFL in fact. It’s a strange cross between an 18 year old birthday party and a David Guetta concert, with sport going on the middle. Whenever the music stops, the ultra organised “ultras” we were sat next to, all in matching clothes I might add, struck up their chants and relentless flag waving. There wasn’t a quiet moment to be had all game.
While the atmosphere was loud yet friendly, it was all very structured and organised, which does detract from it in my opinion, and this is coming from a plastic flag waving Chelsea fan. It almost didn’t matter was going on on the ice (we won 4-0). Compared to the truly electric, albeit intense and intimidating, atmosphere of a big Champions League night at Celtic or the Istanbul derby, it wasn’t the same.
It was a great night out with Russian people, and I was thrilled it was nothing like the football in summer, but I don’t believe you can get a truly electric atmosphere without feeling intimidated by it. You can’t have both.
Hopefully going to check out the mega bucks of the Chinese Super League next, followed by joining the Barmy Army on England’s cricket tour of India this Christmas. While the sport and the atmosphere may change, the joy of watching local people cheer on their team does not.