Going to the library is one of my earliest memories.
When I was five years old — too young still for school — my mother brought me to a building I’d never seen before. It was the library of foreign literature. When we got inside she said, “This is where you will learn English.” The rest of the year, I went back to the library to take preschool English classes. There were other kids my age and I made friends with them by competing at the alphabet. I don’t remember much about the classes, but I can still remember how the library smelled — the smell of old books. And how it was very quiet. To be surrounded by so many books, but not know what was inside of any of them, it felt mysterious to me at that age.
One day I complained to my parents, the way that kids do — something like, “Why don’t my friends have to learn English? They get to play all day.”
I want to stop here and explain, for a moment, a little about my parents. They have very different personalities. My father is strict and uses words sparingly, and my mother is soft, empathetic and talkative. They are a perfect match of opposites. But about this — about my complaining — they had the same mind. And they both told me the same thing.
“Language will open up the world to you,” they told me.
I was born in 1990, the year before the fall of the Soviet Union. It was a time of great uncertainty. I was too young to really understand everything that was happening. Times were rough for a lot of people. I remember hearing about perestroika, but not fully understanding what it meant. There was hope for something new — a new beginning for a country with a long history. As a child, I just had this sense that the world was so much bigger than I knew. Maybe too big to understand.As a child, I just had this sense that the world was so much bigger than I knew. Maybe too big to understand.
Russia is a vast country, but the truth is that many people don’t have the opportunity to see the rest of the world. Without football, it might have been the same for me. I grew up in a city called Saratov, which is about 800 kilometers southeast of Moscow, on the Volga River. It’s likely a city you’ve never heard of. When people think about Russia, maybe their minds only go to Moscow or to St. Petersburg, the big cities where there are more opportunities for everything — tourism, football, education, culture. You could imagine how the world felt like it was happening elsewhere, not in Saratov.
I have my parents to thank for showing me how to dream. They did everything they could to expose me to new things, and they encouraged me to think about a world bigger than Saratov and bigger than Moscow — and even bigger than Russia. In our house we had a small library of books in English, and my parents tried to pass along their love of reading to me. As a kid, long before I could read or understand Dostoyevsky, I was proud that I shared a first name with him because people would tell me he was respected around the world. I felt important when I told people, “My name’s Fyodor.”
I studied English all the way through school. I have my grandmother and mother to thank for that. They made learning English a priority. They even gave me extra work. The summer break before I started high school, when all my friends were forgetting about their studies, my mother made me read 20 pages from an English book every day. At the end of each day, I had to tell her about what I’d read — and I couldn’t make it up because she had also read the same excerpt. Sometimes it felt like a chore. But I remember reading One Hundred Years of Solitude and finishing it in one week. It’s a fascinating book. It talks about a cycle — how human beings arrive in this world, and how parents take care of them, raise them, educate them, and then they become older and take care of their parents, and the cycle repeats. I was captivated by how beautifully it was written, but also by the deeper meaning. I think that Márquez was showing us how similar we are, no matter where we come from. I became an avid reader as I got better at English. Reading made me dream of traveling to faraway places. I just didn’t know how to make it happen.
Roman Knertser/The Players' Tribune
Football was my connector to the world outside of Saratov. My first memory of watching football on TV is the summer of 1998. The World Cup was in France and I was eight years old, sitting on the floor in our apartment. I remember the final, when Zidane had two goals and France beat Brazil. I don’t remember very much else about the match, but I have a vivid memory of how it made me feel to see two national teams, playing in a stadium in a place called Paris, with all the fans going wild. A new, exciting world beyond Saratov had come inside my home.
But Saratov is not known for producing footballers. I remember going to tryouts at the local football academy when I was seven. The conditions were far from being professional. There was no grass on the field, just dirt. So it was impossible to play in real football boots. I wasn’t as big as some of the kids, but I was fast. We were doing drills — sprinting for 30 meters, dribbling, taking shots on goal — with the coach watching every move. I clearly remember saying to myself, Whatever drill we’re asked to do, try to be first.
After practice the coach came up to me. He was the type of person who gave compliments and criticism with the same tone in his voice. “I am happy with the results,” he said. “You can come.”
Even at that age, I understood that if I kept up with football, it could open many doors.
There are a lot of stereotypes about Russians. Growing up, I remember so many American movies where a Russian person was the bad guy. And it’s funny — they could never find an actor who spoke decent Russian! But on a serious level, you still see the stereotypes today. And you see the headlines in the news. Yes, there are real problems here, just as there are in America and other countries.
I’m not talking about governments. I’m interested in people. Because if you meet a Russian person on the street, you might be surprised to find that they know a lot about art and history and the world. They will probably be interested in many of the same things as you. And they will usually speak English, too, especially if they are younger. So I invite you, if you have the chance to visit during the World Cup, to talk to Russian people — we will be interested to know about where you’re from and who you are.
I am confident that I speak for most Russians when I tell you that it is an unbelievable dream to be hosting the World Cup. And I want to offer a simple message to the rest of the world.
Whether you’re visiting my home country, or watching the tournament from far away, I want to say welcome to Russia.
Vladimir Astapkovich/Sputnik/AP Images
It will be my first World Cup, and also Russia’s first time hosting. I want as many people as possible to visit Russia during the tournament. I want them to see that it is as modern a country as any, a place where people are welcoming and kindhearted. We have everything anyone could want — amazing restaurants, nightclubs, museums, architecture — everything! There is a long, long history here, and a beautiful culture that you can find here if you look.
With pride comes responsibility, too. We want to do our best, as a country, to put on a good tournament and welcome the world here. At its best, the World Cup, like the Olympics, is not only about sport. It is a beautiful opportunity — for one month every four years — to remember that we are all neighbors. Football is truly the world’s game, something most of us share in common. And when 32 countries compete here this summer, they will not be 32 governments or 32 companies. No, they will be 32 teams — representing millions of people.
So I want to say welcome, and also thank you. Because a good host needs a good guest. Being a host nation, I think, is like making friends with a stranger: You may not know much about the stranger or where he is from, but you open your door and invite him to come in. And then you hope to learn a little bit about each other.
The world is still big, just as I learned as a child. But the more we learn about each other, the smaller it can feel.
This summer, in Russia, I hope you’ll feel that way.