Octogenarian Russian babushka embraces World Cup role

KALININGRAD, Russia (Reuters) - Since the first World Cup was staged in 1930, there have been 21 editions of the tournament and Ludmila Kharyova has been around for all but one. So when Russia won the right to host the soccer extravaganza, she wanted in on the fun.

Russian volunteer Ludmila Kharyova, 86 years old is pictured during FIFA World Cup in Kaliningrad, Russia, June 22, 2018. Picture taken June 22, 2018. REUTERS/Steve Keating

Now the Spanish speaking pensioner holds the distinction of joining two other 86-year-olds as the oldest volunteers at the Russia World Cup.

After working at a kiosk in a historic old fishing village in Kaliningrad, she made a beeline for the city center on Monday to help Spain supporters who had arrived for the Group B match against Morocco.

“I was very happy to know the championship would take place in Russia and Kaliningrad,” a beaming Kharyova told Reuters with the help of an interpreter.

“We have four matches and one of them is between Spain and Morocco and I know Spanish and if I can help this is the best profit for me to take part in World Cup.”

Smartly decked out in her blue baseball cap and volunteer jacket, the diminutive Kharyova, who was born in May 1932, admitted she is not a “big” soccer fan but follows the sport as she does many others.

She does, however, watch enough to have a favorite player. Like millions of others, Portugal heart-throb Cristiano Ronaldo is at the top of her list.

“I know Ronaldo of course and he seems very nice,” said Kharyova. “I will support him through the World Cup.

“I keep an eye on the matches all the time.”

Ronaldo’s presences in Russia was enough to earn Portugal her support but Kharyova hedged her bet saying she would also save some for Spain and of course the home side.

A life that has spanned nine decades, Kharyova was educated at the Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) Institute but spent the last 60 years in Kaliningrad, the tiny Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania.

Growing up she worked as translator, helping mostly Cuban students who came to study in Russia. She later worked in the fishing industry, finding crews for the ships that trawled the sea.

Kharyova shuddered as she recalled the horror of World War II and the tensions of the Cold War. She witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union, glasnost (practice of more open consultative government) and perestroika (reforming the Soviet economic and political system).

Due to its strategic importance as the base for the Soviet Baltic Fleet during the Cold War, Kaliningrad was a closed city to foreigners. Hence Kharyova now embraces the opportunity to welcome visitors and share in their World Cup joy.

“I am the child of war,” said Kharyova. “I was in the first grade when the Soviet Foreign Minister, (Vyacheslav) Molotov said Germany had attacked the Soviet Union.

“I worry about the world, that people should live in peace and be friends and not make war but visit each other and be friends.”

Editing by Pritha Sarkar