Moscow transformed by World Cup as Russian, foreign fans party hard

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Join ESPN in Russia, as we go on the lookout for one of the World Cup's biggest stars, Cristiano Ronaldo. (2:36)

Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a series of essays profiling all of the cities hosting World Cup games this summer. Eliot Rothwell visited every venue to get a sense of how preparations were going and enjoy the atmosphere.

MOSCOW -- In the shadow Moscow State University's imposing Stalinist tower, chants of "Rossiya" dominated the evening. It was the fifth goal, Aleksandr Golovin's free kick, that really did it. The 4-0 score was beyond the expectations of many Russian fans, but 5-0 was historic. It gave a sense of finality, pure triumph and domination. It was the sort of result found in films and books, stories in which the protagonists shake off adversity to win by the most iconic of scorelines.

Fans held up their five fingers as they congratulated each other. Everywhere there were chants. "Ro-ssi-ya. Ro-ssi-ya."

Before the game, the host fans had been nervous. The South American contingent that made the trip -- coming from Argentina, Colombia and Peru -- brought the colour, noise and excitement. Russian fans were more subdued. On the walk to the fan zone, along the viewing platform at Sparrow Hills, many took their last gulp of vodka before heading through the security gates. To the left, one could see the hulking skyscrapers of Moscow City, the financial district, reaching up into the clouds. In front, the Luzhniki, adorned in World Cup branding. In the distance, the gold domes of the Church of Christ the Saviour and the famous Stalinist spires.

Tossing his empty bottle into the bin, Evgeniy, a 32-year-old from the Moscow suburbs, said: "I feel sick. We've waited so long. Everybody is watching. I hope they don't let us down."

Inside the fan zone, in front of the big screens, hot dog carts and beer stands, things livened up. The South Americans offered some cheer. Russians appeared with their faces painted in the national colours. When the first goal went in, a Yuri Gazinskiy header, confidence returned. A cut-away shot of President Vladimir Putin gesturing a sort of "oops" to Saudi leader Mohammed Bin Salman generated some laughter from the crowd. Then came the second goal, and the third ... and the fourth and, finally, the fifth.

The walk back down to Leninsky Prospekt was alive with the crackle of excited, beer-aided conversations, with Russian fans stopping their foreign visitors for selfies. They learned each other's names, patted each other on the back, wished each other good luck. A Senegal fan walked arm-in-arm with his new Russian friend. Everywhere, conversations began in accented English. "Where are you from? How do you like Moscow?"

Ivan and Timur, two 19-year-old Muscovites, heard me speaking English to another journalist. They both turned around, with smiles. "English guys!" they said. Ken, who is from Ireland, quickly corrected them. "Oh no," they replied. "No World Cup for you."

I asked what they thought about the game and about Russia's chances of a World Cup run. "It's amazing," Ivan said. "The match against Egypt is absolutely huge."

Timur agreed. "[Russia's second game against] Egypt is very important," he said. "But we will always remember this night. Winning 5-0 will go down in Russian history. If something bad happens against Egypt, we can always say we began our World Cup with five goals. Tonight, all of Russia can celebrate."

On Wednesday, the night before the World Cup's opening game, the party in the city was led by Moscow's visitors. Along Nikolskaya Ulitsa, the pedestrianised street that adjoins Red Square, a carnival of colour and song broke out. Different sections of the street belonged to different nationalities. First the Iranians, with their flags and banners dedicated to manager Carlos Queiroz. Then the Argentinians, the most exuberant of all. They pinned up banners embellished with the faces of Lionel Messi and Paulo Dybala, belting out their famous song to the tune of "Bad Moon Rising" by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Hundreds of people joined in.

Further up the road, the Peruvians, one of the real delights of pre-tournament Moscow, did the same, followed by the Colombians and a small Saudi Arabian contingent.

This was a Moscow that locals had never seen before. It was a city energised by the World Cup, ending an eight-year wait for a tournament that had finally arrived. Muscovites walked along a street they had seen hundreds or even thousands of times, but everything had changed. Where there was once clinical order, now there was joyous chaos. People took out their phones to take pictures and videos to show to friends and relatives. Some brought Russia flags or Russian football shirts, jumping into the crowd or joining in the Argentinian songs.

The World Cup promised a party, a festival of football, and it delivered.

Grigoriy, a 43-year-old local whom I met in the fan zone, was overjoyed. "This is a new city. It's brilliant. I've lived in Moscow all my life and never seen anything like it."

On Wednesday night, the locals were amazed. They are accustomed to seeing tourists, especially in the area surrounding Red Square and the Kremlin, but they have never seen such vibrancy and colour or so much joy and happiness from visitors.

Muscovites know that tourists are often forewarned about what to expect in Russia. They know the kind of stories that are published about their country. Before the tournament, some worried that their interactions with visitors would begin with a little hostility and misunderstanding. They expected to break the ice through conversation or a few drinks, but on Wednesday, they found that there was no ice to break. They understood that people had arrived in Moscow hoping to have a good time. And they joined in.

The visitors I spoke to were also surprised. In the week before the tournament began as the first fans arrived, I spoke to two Peruvians, Jorge and Artur. They'd never been to Russia before and expected a very industrial, austere city. On their first night in Moscow, they came across Patriarch's Ponds, one of the two ponds in central Moscow, and sat along its bank, with fairy lights over their head and groups of people sitting down for a few drinks. The next day, they visited Kitai Gorod, an historic part of Moscow filled with small roads, Orthodox churches and colourful, two-story buildings. They had expected a city completely dominated by hulking tower blocks.

Jorge, the older of the two, was amazed. "This is completely different to how I imagined. I knew it would be slightly different, every place usually is. But wow. I don't really know what to say. I think if people knew this place maybe even more would be here."

Artur, who only knew a little bit of English, nodded along and said, "Moscow: very, very good. City very nice."

People in Moscow and beyond will remember the events of the last few days for years to come. The awkward nature of Russian aviation, funnelling everybody through either Moscow or St Petersburg, worked to create a special atmosphere. People who otherwise would have flown direct to Saransk, Volgograd or elsewhere decided to spend a few days in Moscow first, using the inconvenience as an opportunity to see Russia's capital.

Over the next couple of days, as fans fly to the various host cities to see their nations compete, the party will likely move on, becoming refracted. The rest of the tournament will not be so centralised. Moscow enjoyed a fleeting moment, and it will remember it.