BUSY spot, Moscow.
A town with a population more than three times that of Scotland, it was never likely to be quiet now, was it?
No. But such are the time-altering effects of a night spent on the railway lines of Russia that arriving into Moscow’s Iaroslavskaia Station at 9.15 in the morning can instead feel like a wholly unholy hour. It may well be rush hour in the real world but in the night train realm from which you are being unceremoniously ejected, it’s closer to one of those incongruous sequence of numbers that come together when you’re not supposed to be looking – 4.27 or something like that.
In other words, it feels a time to be spent in private, not being bowled from a public platform into the skittles of Moscow’s commuters class. But this is no town to come looking for soft comfort, so you best be getting on with it.
The Argentine masses who poured off Premium Train No.31 on Friday weren’t ready to be getting on with it however. Not yet. Not when the morning after the nightmare before brought no relief at all.
And so, as they reconvened out on platform 12, the old men and young men and the women speckled among them did something that in this place felt peculiar. They embraced. Not just a morning ‘how’re ya’ but long, lingering bear hugs, claps on the back, kisses on the head for the young ones. As though they had been through a great trauma. Because they had. For this footballing nation it was a trauma that was unlike many others.
The beginning of the end of the Lionel Messi era had been a harrowing experience for all of a powder blue and white disposition as Argentina imploded in front of the world in Nizhny Novgorod.
There was no solace, no dignity even, to be found on a night when Jorge Sampaoli’s side looked doomed before they’d even got their boots on. Croatia, a national team that have been poster boys for dysfunction so often in their own history, had instead been a portrait in poise and then punishment against a chaotic collection of individuals led by a captain who appeared to be in a psychological crisis.
The imperious midfield pairing of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic pulled the strings slowly at first, waiting for their moments. When they duly arrived, the duo stripped Messi and Argentina layer by layer, unravelling the myth that such a thing as destiny can dictate where a World Cup will go.
By the time Modric and Rakitic were finished, all that remained was the truth. A naked one. And as Thursday turned to Friday and the temperatures dropped, Argentina’s army wrapped themselves in all they had left, trudged away from the arena and into the pitch black night.
They were headed back to Moscovskiy Station, a place that reverberated to Argentine and Croat song in the early afternoon. But by 1.30am it was a quieter place.
In this the most vast country on the planet, there are endless expanses of silence. Places where noise arrives just once a day or once a week when a locomotive comes rumbling through.
Russia’s railway network is a marvel of a bygone age that has survived nearly two centuries of evolution and revolution and still manages to keep the place connected. In the country’s first World Cup it has been more than just a pivotal transport system frenetically ferrying fans from west to east and south back north – it has been a social network, too.
By day and especially by night supporters pack into compartments where you couldn’t swing a shinpad or into open carriages with bunks stacked high and low and they share, well, everything. Beers, home brews, snacks, stories. In the opening week and a half, they shared hope most of all.
But the 2018 World Cup has already reached the stage where trains depart the central hub of Moscow for another host city packed with expectation and electricity but come back with a lighter load of the same. Only one set of supporters make the return journey in high spirits, the other lumbered with the excess baggage that elimination brings.
So it was in the early hours of Friday morning. Argentina aren’t yet out but their fans were down, scattered across the tiled floor of Moscovskiy Station as they waited for their train to be called. Along the stairs, Croats draped in trademark tablecloth red and white were understandably more upright. Nothing like progress to help your late-night posture, their magnificent team now destined for the last 16 and surely beyond.
Around 2.45am, an announcement told us Premium Train No.31 would be arriving at Platform Two but the screen flashed Platform Six. Argentines with blue-and-white facepaint long since smudged across their cheeks where once a flag had been drawn now sported blank faces.
“Dos…o seis?” they asked themselves and no one in particular.
Over 800,000 Russians are employed by the state rail network. Eight of them speak English. But no matter, they all point with aplomb and the crowd got where it needed to go.
Herald Sport had splurged on a second-class ticket for the seven-hour journey back to the capital. That means the aforementioned coffin, sorry compartment, where personal space is redefined and then shared with three other souls. Bunk eight was in compartment two and was an ‘upper’… because there’s nothing more fun at 3.05am than hauling 13 stones (and the rest) of flogged beef up six feet to a bunk six inches from the ceiling.
The compartment was already cramped with three elated Croats.
Andrija, Ante and Bozidar had had one of the night of their lives but with the majority of the rest of the carriage packed with those who had endured one of their worst, weren’t about to rub it in as bodies made for bunks.
It was getting early but it had still been a night of nights. “Rakitic, man,” Ante wondered as Argentines trudged by the sliding door. “Unbelievable. Just unbelievable.”
The trio actually hailed from Herzegovina they told us, Medjugorje to be exact. Their pilgrimage to Russia had already been worth it. There was a joke somewhere about the pope being Argentine and divine intervention but the brain was in 4am mode and it felt better to conserve energy for that climb to the top bunk.
Even with a pillow pressed against an open window and train tracks already blurring by, sleep would not be hard found. In the neighbouring compartments too, Argentines were apparently able to rest tortured minds as silence again fell on the expanses.
Five hours that felt like five minutes later, one of the 800,000 slid open the door, shouted something in the motherland’s tongue and held forth a mobile phone screen on which Google Translate told us we’d be arriving in a half hour.
Bodies woke and minds tried to follow. Ante unzipped his bag and unveiled eight-hour old chicken shawarmas. This being the World Cup, comradeship at every turn, one was offered up to your Herald correspondent. We politely declined, having devoured one of the same before departure. Ending one day and starting the next with the same street food is never great for the soul, never mind the guts.
The Argentines were rustling now too, Messi still on their backs and still on their minds. You could hear little bursts of Spanish pillow talk greeting the morning with the same anguished debate it had closed the night — Sampaoli, Dybala, Messi and most of all, the calamitous Caballero peppering conversations as the train finally pulled into Moscow.
As they streamed by the sliding door on their way out they wished the three Croats nothing but the best. Those in red and white bounced out into the blinding daylight and on to the platform looking only forward. Those in blue and white stumbled off and embraced. Then they lingered . . . as long as they could.
But for now this was the end of the line . . . and maybe the end of an era.