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No Cold War stereotypes in Russia, only a warm welcome
AS a third-generation Liverpool fan, I thought that I would never be able to watch another football game in the near future after enduring the heart-wrenching loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League final in Kiev on May 26.
So it was with a bit of irony that I went to the former Soviet Union and watched the World Cup Round of 16 match between the host nation Russia and Spain on Sunday.
My Russian friends Artem and Leo were wonderful hosts and made sure that I had as easy a trip as possible - from getting the visa-free Fan ID application to navigating the various security measures. Overall, the World Cup has been a well-run event with a great atmosphere in the various host cities.
For many in my age group, who grew up in the Cold War era, the on-the-ground impression of Russia cannot be more different from that often depicted in Hollywood movies.
Relationships between Russia and the West have been built on layers of mutual suspicion, but in my dealings both at the business and personal level with the Russians, I find them warm, intellectual and even humorous.
In Russia, the sense of belonging to a larger community is important and this spirit is amplified in the sport of football as Russians cheer vociferously for their team. What an epic match it turned out to be against the Spaniards in Moscow. Russia effectively defended throughout the 120 minutes - 90 minutes of normal time and 30 minutes of extra time - to eventually take settle the result via a penalty shootout.
The vast majority of the 78,000 supporters in the stadium were Russia's so-called "12th man", and they cheered the home team to victory against the 2010 World Cup champions.
Even though Russia are in the quarter-finals, few give them much of a chance of actually winning the tournament. The Brazilian legend Pele once said in an interview that Russia will be a world champion in football only when Brazil becomes a world champion in ice hockey.
Small is no disadvantage
There's a joke going around now that Brazil is busy constructing an ice hockey arena in Rio De Janeiro, after Russia defeated Spain to reach the last eight.
Many fans were surprised when they saw me in the Singapore jersey that I wear with pride. I faced many questions and stares. "Singapore? Seriously?", one of them exclaimed.
At this World Cup, we have witnessed first-hand how countries with small populations, such as Croatia and Uruguay, are able to punch way above their weight.
Perhaps Singapore can learn from countries like England which has completely overhauled its youth football programme, which has allowed the players to stay together as a team and progress up the age groups.
England has done well with the youngest squad in this World Cup and more importantly, it is the team to watch in the future at the Under-17 and Under-21 world championships. This is not rocket science and other countries like Spain and Holland have done it well too.
My family will never forget how we were at the Jalan Besar Stadium to watch Singapore win the football bronze medal at the 2010 Youth Olympics. Can you imagine the possibilities if that same team had stayed together all this while?
Many World Cup records have been broken in Russia and there are still many big matches to come as we approach the final on July 15.
We've seen the frequent use of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) that has resulted in a record number of penalty kicks being awarded. The 48 matches in the group stage saw just one goalless draw. The many unpredictable results have captivated fans from around the world.
While in Russia, I have had the privilege to bump into many Latin American fans who embarked on long and expensive journeys to support their teams.
According to official statistics, there are about 300,000 visitors from Latin America in Russia, mainly from Brazil, Mexico and Argentina.
My Argentine colleague Armando, who came with his three friends, told me that many Argentines saved up for a few years just to make the trip to Russia, which has been especially tough given the peso's devaluation.
During this trip to the World Cup, I've renewed ties with old friends and I will treasure the many new friendships I've made, both with Russians and other nationalities.
- The writer is the Asia-Pacific CEO of a multinational company based in Singapore. The views expressed here are his own.