21/06/2018 14:18 BST | Updated 06/08/2018 15:00 BST

24 Hours In Samara, The City That Symbolises The Massive Scale Of Putin's World Cup

A Russian city that was off-limits to foreigners until the fall of the Soviet Union now struggles to welcome the world as its guest.

Ekaterina Bodyagina
Samara was a prohibited area for foreigners during Soviet times due to its military importance.

Samara, 9am: Valerii pulls one of his 50 football jerseys from the closet

SAMARA, Russia — In a few minutes, Valerii and his wife will make their way to the Cosmos Arena in Samara.

There, Costa Rica is playing Serbia. In 25 years Valerii has not missed any of his home team’s games. For him, the World Cup is a high point in his life. Because the Russian city with over a million residents, was off-limits to foreigners until the fall of the Soviet Union, now welcomes the world as its guest.

Valerii bought tickets for all six games — and for two more: one in St Petersburg, the other in Kazan, 250 miles (400 kms) away, where he drove in his car the day before.

Ekaterina Bodyagina
Valerii spent what would be a fortune for most Russians on World Cup tickets.

“The World Cup will probably never come here again,” he says. “I have to savour every second of it, like a vacation.”

This “vacation” costs 130,000 rubles (£1,500/€1,700/$2,000) which is a fortune for most Russians. But Valerii can afford it. He works as a consultant for a natural gas company.

Russia’s president Vladimir Putin brought the World Cup to Samara for fans like him, who can afford the tickets costing hundreds of pounds, and go into raptures over them.

I have to savour every second of it, like a vacation. Valerii, natural gas company employee

For this, Putin spent £10.5 billion (€12 bn/$14 bn); it is the most expensive World Cup in history. Nobody can put an exact number on how much of that money went to the relatively wealthy city on the Volga River.

But one thing is clear: The billions were channeled into miles of new streets, into new hotels, and into the renovation of historical buildings in the city centre.

And into a stadium in the shape of a UFO.

Ekaterina Bodyagina
Hundreds of thousands of fans, who have never been to Samara before and probably will never come back, are making a pilgrimage to the Volga.

This not only represents the city’s tradition of aerospace engineering — ten colleges and four universities were teaching students during the Soviet era — but also symbolises the gigantic scale of these games like no other World Cup stadium.

However, the shape of the stadium is also a symbol for something else: Whoever visits Samara these days gets the impression that the World Cup has landed in the city like a spaceship.

More than 600 miles (1,000 kms) east of Moscow, Sarama was a secretive ‘closed city’ known from 1935 to 1991 as Kuybyshev, in honour of Bolshevik leader Valerian Kuybyshev. It was also designated as the alternative capital of the Soviet Union should Moscow have fallen during World War II.

Now hundreds of thousands of fans, who have never been here before and probably will never come back, are making a pilgrimage to the Volga.

This raises the question: How do the residents experience this exceptional situation — and what will be left when the World Cup spaceship flies on?

Ekaterina Bodyagina
Valerii's impressive jersey collection numbers more than 50.

To answer this question, we spent the day with people from Samara:

-With Valerii, the hardcore fan;

-With Mikhail Matveyev, an opposition politician, who spent years fighting over the location of Samara’s new stadium;

-With Natalia, who has been preparing to volunteer at the World Cup for three years;

-With barkeeper Vitalii, who caters to fans every day but can’t afford a ticket for a match himself;

-And with Sergei, whom we meet at 10:30am in a cellar in the city centre, which also houses the city’s football museum.

Samara has a proud football history going back more than a century. That’s why Sergei founded the city’s only football museum, where he guides visitors during the World Cup. 

Football was always more than football here; it was an island of freedom. Sergei, local football museum founder

One might think that for Sergei, too, the tournament is a celebration, just like for Valerii. However, Sergei, who also works for independent radio station Echo Moscow, says, “The World Cup tears my heart in two.”

He takes us on a journey through time, back to a time when “gulag inmates, secret service agents, politicians, and completely ordinary people” still sat side by side in Samara’s stadium and cheered for their team.

“Football was always more than football here; it was an island of freedom.”

The UFO, which is actually supposed to thrill and captivate fans like Sergei, really is an alien element to him. It represents everything he dislikes about the modern football circus. For a start, there are the high ticket prices. But also the security measures.

Ekaterina Bodyagina
Sergei founded Samara's football museum but he won't attend a single match of the World Cup.

The authorities want to ensure the security of fans, but in Sergei’s eyes, “It divides the people, even though football should bring the people together.” Sergei is Samara’s biggest football historian, but he won’t attend a single match in his own World Cup.

Midday, four hours before kickoff, in the north of the city

While fans make their way to the stadium in the city’s collection of rusty trams and buses, we meet Natalia. One week ago at the university in Samara, the 22-year-old handed in her masters thesis for her teacher’s training certificate, in order to teach English and German. Now she is lugging the Serbian national team’s gear out of the team bus and into the stadium.

Natalia is representative of the 2,600 volunteers who are working in Samara alone. She applied three years ago, took part in two interviews, and attended several workshops during which she learned Spanish and how to deal with drunk fans.

Ekaterina Bodyagina
Natalia currently divides her life into 'before and after the World Cup'.

Now she is effectively working full-time for a month and not getting paid a single penny for it. Her reward is the feeling “to have been a part of something so gigantic.”

What will remain after the World Cup in Samara? “I hope that more tourists will come,” she says.

Natalia then disappears. In the bowels of the spaceship, she will soon lead the Costa Rican VIP guests to their boxes and show the players the way to the changing room.

Kickoff approaches, Cosmos Arena 

Meanwhile, Mikhail Matveyev sits in the front seats and waits for the kickoff at 4pm. He is a member of the Communist Party and the only representative of the opposition in the regional parliament.

Colleagues of his from the parliament are sitting there. Local entrepreneurs. A family of oligarchs from Samara. And right in the middle, Mikhail, wearing a denim jacket and blue jeans.

Ekaterina Bodyagina
Mikhail Matveyev is the only opposition representative in the regional parliament.

He actually intended to flee the city during the World Cup, but this plan came to nothing when the governor gave him a ticket. So now he sits here for the first time in the stadium which is connected to him by a very personal story.

Mikhail was at the centre of battle over the location and construction of Samara’s new stadium. The fight lasted for years but was successful, ending with the start of construction in 2014. Then followed an unparalleled scandal surrounding the politics of its construction, which still makes Mikhail furious to this day.

Putin himself called it a problem stadium due to the exploding costs and fired the governor who had given construction contracts to his own people, says Mikhail.

Most people here have never seen foreigners before. Mikhail, opposition politician

Now the UFO stands behind a forested area on the edge of the city with room for 45,000 fans, many of whom have come from far, far away.

“Most people here have never seen foreigners before,” says Mikhail. Samara, it must be known, was a prohibited area for foreigners from the West during Soviet times, due to its military importance. But after the fall of the Iron Curtain there was little reason for tourists to come visit the city. Now the residents of Samara cannot avoid them anymore.

It’s because of this that Samarans post selfies with World Cup tourists on social media. Yet the flood of red and blue-red jerseys worn by fans at the match on Sunday was only the beginning. At the end of June, 20,000 fans from Colombia are expected to come watch a match. A small invasion.

Mikhail wonders what will remain of that after the World Cup. The residential buildings far from the centre look just as dilapidated as a year ago. And “the hopes for employment and an economic boost have also not been fulfilled,” laments Mikhail.

Ekaterina Bodyagina
The cheap beer at Vitalii's pub attracts tourists, who are 'significantly more willing to spend'.

10pm, Serbia score a 1-0 win over Costa Rica

Vitalii, 25, taps beer behind the bar of the pub Turbaza Veterok, while Brazil’s match against Switzerland plays on a large screen.

One beer costs 150 rubles (about £1.75/€2), which is cheaper than elsewhere in the city centre. The cheap beer attracts tourists, who are “significantly more willing to spend,” says Vitalii.

Since the start of the World Cup, he has been getting twice as many tips.

“Besides, the atmosphere is better,” he says.

The local people are more friendly and curious to find out who’s next to them drinking a beer. Vitalii, 25

Before, the guests often engaged in brawls. “That is over for now,” says Vitalii. “The local people are more friendly and curious to find out who’s next to them drinking a beer.”

Will this new friendliness survive the World Cup?

“I would be very happy about that,” he says. “But in the end, it’s like it always is. The people will get out of control again.”

At 4am, Vitalii will lock up his pub and drive home, and tomorrow the whole thing will start over again. Not just for him, but also for Natalia, Valerii, Mikhail and Sergei. Five people who represent the exceptional situation in Samara.

All this will end in one month, on July 15th, after the final in Moscow, when the UFO will lift off and fly on to Qatar.

This article first appeared on HuffPost Germany