MOSCOW (Reuters) - When he bought a ticket last year for a World Cup quarter-final in Sochi, Russian soccer fan Yevgeny Yegorov guessed, based on form and pedigree, that he would most likely be a neutral spectator watching Spain play Argentina.
But after Russia’s shock win over Spain on penalties in the round of 16, Yegorov found, to his delight, that he would be seeing his own national side play on Saturday.
Dozens of Russia fans, including Yegorov, gathered on the platform of Moscow’s Kazansky Railway Station on Friday for a 1,500-kilometre (932-mile) journey to the Black Sea resort city of Sochi to watch their side take on Croatia in the last eight.
Some travelers wore the team’s colors and carried over-stuffed plastic bags filled with provisions to last the 24-hour trip.
“Everything has come together for our team to play in the quarter-finals,” said Yegorov, a native of Tver, a city midway between Moscow and St Petersburg.
“We hope that this miracle, this luck won’t leave our team.”
The Russian team had received scathing criticism in the run-up to the tournament, with fans complaining about their tepid attack and sluggish defense.
But their unexpected success has now made the population rally around the side. A comedian who had denigrated Russia’s World Cup soccer team in a music video apologized last month after they reached the knockout stage.
“I criticized the team ahead of the tournament, like everybody else,” said Alexei Gerasimov, an engineer from Moscow.
“We started believing after the first match. I think the criticism might have helped them.”
Russia have also picked up fans from other countries, who have found the host nation’s surprise success inspiring.
Soledad Cantera of Argentina thought she would be seeing Lionel Messi in Sochi. Argentina’s elimination by France in the round of 16 means she will be seeing the lesser-known Artyom Dzyuba, the Arsenal Tula striker who scored for Russia in regular time against Spain.
“We didn’t think Argentina would not be playing. This is why we bought tickets for this match,” the 34-year-old said. “We will show our Argentinian flag, but we will support Russia.”
Takaidza Mhoshiwa, a fan from Zimbabwe, traveled to Russia to support Nigeria. After they were eliminated at the group stage, Mhoshiwa shifted his focus to the hosts.
“In the game in Sochi, I want Russia to win,” he said. “That will keep it more interesting and exciting, especially if we have a match-up between Russia and England (in the semi-finals).”
Writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber,; Editing by Ed Osmond