On Tuesday as Moscow was bathed in warm sunshine, the streets around Red Square gave a hint as to what is in store over the next few weeks as the World Cup comes to town.

A dozen flag-waving Moroccans walked through the cavernous interiors of the GUM department store, singing in perfect harmony; a Russian family posed for photographs with a quartet of Mexicans in oversized sombreros behind the domes of St Basil’s Cathedral; and three Peruvians clad in their team’s colours joined thousands of locals strolling around the newly landscaped Zaryadye Park in central Moscow.

“It’s much easier to get around than we expected and a much nicer city,” said Carlos, 39, who had travelled from New York to see Peru play in their first World Cup since 1982.

He will travel to Peru’s first game, in the city of Saransk, by overnight bus because there were no train or plane tickets available. But he said getting around Moscow, using a combination of Uber and the metro, had been surprisingly straightforward.

Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium will host both Thursday’s opening match and the final on 15 July. In between, there will be 10 further games played in the capital, shared between Luzhniki and the Spartak stadium. It is the biggest event hosted in the Russian capital since the 1980 Olympics.

During the coming month, much of the spotlight will be on smaller Russian cities not used to hosting major events and unknown to most foreign visitors. But Moscow also has a chance to project a new image as a modern European capital, crafted through extensive renovations and urban planning programmes over the past few years.

“It’s a chance to show everyone that Moscow is not bears on the streets and balalaikas,” said Alexander Polyakov, director of the government institute that oversees the Moscow transport network, voicing a widely held belief that foreign concerns about Russia are due to unfair prejudice and ignorance rather than Russia’s behaviour on the world stage.

Some of those visiting may not expect to find a modern metropolis with a pleasant city centre. But under the mayor Sergei Sobyanin, Moscow has changed perhaps more than any other city in Europe over the past few years. Dozens of streets have been fully pedestrianised, pavements have been widened to include bike lanes and more space for those on foot, and a number of parks have been renovated and spruced up.

Much of the renovation has been carried out without public consultation, amid allegations of corruption and, in the case of the pavement renovations, often at the cost of extreme inconvenience to Muscovites. But there is little doubt that the result is a city centre that is unrecognisable from a decade ago.

Stalinist architecture and monuments still give the city an imposing feel, but at ground level everything has become more humane. “The atmosphere in Moscow is different; the streets have a different rhythm. Now it’s pleasant and convenient to walk in Moscow,” said the deputy mayor, Maxim Liksutov.

The cafe and restaurant scene has been transformed, with hipster eateries and artisan coffee now more in evidence than Soviet-style canteens.

Officials are at pains to stress just how welcoming the city will be for foreign visitors during the World Cup. Liksutov pointed out work on the metro and other transport systems in recent months to ensure all signs and announcements are bilingual. Public transport will be free on match days for those with tickets, and the entire metro system will run until 3am after late games.

The city government has launched an app in six languages to help visitors and has provided free English-language lessons to 5,000 of the city’s 50,000 licensed taxi drivers.

A number of taxi apps work in Moscow, but the city lacks a centralised system of taxis that run on meters. Liksutov said “We’ve asked taxi drivers not to raise their prices for the World Cup and are counting on their cooperation.” However, a yellow taxi on Moscow’s central Tverskaya street, approached on Tuesday and asked in English how much a ride to Sheremetevo airport would cost, quoted a price of 5,000 roubles (£60), about 400% higher than the standard fare.

There are other potential pitfalls for visitors, despite the good intentions. While Russian authorities have reduced visa requirements for those with tickets, they have not waived the cumbersome requirement to register with police, a formality for those staying in hotels but a potential nightmare for the hundreds of thousands of fans who will stay in rented apartments.

There also remain concerns over potential racism or hooliganism, though the early fan experience suggests problems of an altogether more benign kind.

“Everyone is really friendly and I can’t go anywhere without people trying to have their photo taken with me,” said Carlos, the Peru fan. “I’m thinking I should start charging for it.”
'Much nicer than expected': World Cup fans size up modern Moscow

Mexican fan in Moscow

and an Argentine, I believe

Not sure where this one is from

Iranians, lots of Iranians

Local Russian guy taking selfie with some Venezuelans (or Colombians? I have no idea, their flags are pretty much the same, though, I would assume Venezuelans would be greeted much more warmly by Russians, as they are a close Latin Ally, while Colombia is America's people lol)

More of Venezuelans or Colombians, on Red Square

Now THESE are definitely Colombians, also on Red Square

A volunteer high fives passersby at the fan zone near Moscow University

I wrote before these people were specially trained to smile while greetings the foreign people, something otherwise very unusual for Russians, a normally cold and distant folk among themselves, often even in marriage...


Anyway, Moscow (and St. Petersburg, and even Volgograd or Sochi) will be fine, I believe. First three are large, and fairly cosmopolitan cities today, Moscow especially so of course. And Sochi has hosted an Olympics before, so they have that experience.

I am much more worried about small, poor, backward provincial towns, like Saransk, mentioned, I think, in that article. These are places where most people have never traveled anywhere, and never in their life seen a foreigner or any non-white person before... Nobody there speaks English either. Opportunity for misunderstanding is ripe... Some foreign dude, especially, God forbid, a black guy from Nigeria or some such place, starts flirting with a local chick, and local lads may very well be take offense to that... May not end well. There's gonna be tons of police everywhere, but, still...