This is the first in a series of posts about my time volunteering at the Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup in St. Petersburg. At the time, I flooded my Snapchat account with probably hundreds of snaps that gave a behind-the-scenes, yet appropriate, look at the World Cup but I figured it was finally time to share some stories…
My journey to the 2018 FIFA World Cup in St. Petersburg started all the way back in 2014….in Sochi, Russia. I was at the evening luge event at the Sochi Olympics. Standing there in my American flag alone, I naturally attracted attention from any other Americans. My now-friend Rob was one such American. A long conversation there and another run-in at the curling arena later, we were bound to be two peas in a pod amidst a sea of Russians over the next few years.
Rob encouraged me to apply to be a World Cup volunteer and when registration opened in fall 2014, I did. Though I thought it was a bit early (usually volunteer applications don’t happen until two years prior), I was soon contacted to interview. Apparently, I passed – and well, Rob knew a lot of Russians who had transitioned from Sochi 2014 to Russia 2018 staff, so that probably helped. I was slated to volunteer at the Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup Preliminary Draw in St. Petersburg in July 2015. Fast forward to June 2018, and I’d also volunteered at the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in St. Petersburg and the Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup Final Draw inside the Kremlin! in Moscow. Now I was pumped for the main event.
Timing worked in my favor. A few days prior, I’d finished managing a short term international professional development program in China so I landed in St. Petersburg on the direct China Eastern flight from Shanghai right on schedule, five days before the first match in St. Pete’s. The first couple days were spent collecting my uniform and other volunteer swag, getting reacquainted with the stadium, and getting into the swing of things at my home base – the media center, where I’d be positioned once again. I liked touring the empty stadium, meeting new volunteers and reuniting with volunteer friends from before, and figuring out little World Cup “hacks” here and there.
But we went to work. We set up the media center – labeling and organizing everything, setting up TVs and other equipment. We stocked and organized supplies at the information desk. We made and printed signs for the stadium media tribune and for the photographer chairs down on the sidelines of the pitch. We checked and labeled all the keys for the journalist and press officer lockers in the media center. We double checked all internet and power cables up in the media tribune. We set up the press conference area, where press conferences with each team’s head coach and one player would be held the day before and the day of each match. We prepared tickets for members of the media. We set up the pick-up area for photographer pitch seats. We learned how to work the pitch from the FIFA media officers, practicing over and over again until our form was great and our timing was even better. In between, we took breaks to chow down on the provided volunteer meals and pick up the unlimited Coca-Cola products in the volunteer center. And maybe we also hit up the German-style beerhaus next to the stadium afterwards.
Finally, it was our first match day! Our large group of 70+ media operations volunteers were assigned to different places during the match: the media center, the media tribune, press conference, mixed zone, and the pitch. I was blessed with a pitch position for this first match between Iran and Morocco. This involved bringing and holding a rope around the cohort of photographers in front of a team’s bench during the opening ceremony. This is the only time photographers were permitted to come that close and we needed to manage them to ensure they didn’t run around everywhere.
We lined up at two corners on the bench sideline, holding the rope, ready to go. The energy inside the stadium was electric. I looked up and saw the flashes of smartphones, little kids decked out in jerseys, and of course, many Russian flags. A few minutes later, Zabivaka, the wolf-dog World Cup mascot approached and we jumped at the chance to get pictures with him on the pitch sideline. We exchanged high fives and figured our first match experience was already off to a great start.
As the clock ticked down to 15 minutes to kickoff, the designated opening ceremony music began to play and our group began our “rope walk” down the sideline to position ourselves in front of the Moroccan team’s bench. There weren’t too many photographers so the mood was light-hearted; our task extremely manageable. Afterwards, we divided up into small groups and dispersed to the four corner tunnels of the stadium. There we were able to watch the match but were also responsible for catering to the needs of the sideline photographers. This mainly consisted of making sure they had plenty of water and that their tech connections and cables were working properly. At the beginning and end of each half, we also had to count how many photographers were along the sideline as collecting this data is required by FIFA. During halftime, we checked the sidelines, replacing water supplies, picking up trash, and checking in with photographers again. We were allowed to switch places with fellow volunteers for a change of scenery in the second half.
Before we knew it, the last few seconds of stoppage time gave way to the referee’s final whistle, signaling a a victory for Iran who scored a last minute goal in the thriller. It was their final World Cup win since 1998, when they beat the US in a politically-charged match-up. Their excitement – and shock – was palpable as we retreated to the media center to help out with remaining tasks as journalists flooded back in from the media tribune and sidelines. There, amidst people milling about, we caught up on how work in the media center had gone during the match. Additionally, we waited for other small teams of volunteers to return from press conference area and the mixed zone, where players and coaches gave on and off-air interviews for the press and broadcasting crews.
Finally, the large majority of our media operations team had gathered back in our volunteer break room and behind the media center information desk. Once the word went out from our supervisors via the official team WhatsApp group, we settled upstairs in the break room for our debrief. The two FIFA media officers responsible for St. Petersburg Stadium summed up what we did well and of course, what we could have done better and we made notes for the next match. Over the course of the entire tournament, I very much respected their leadership, approachability, directness, and professionalism and valued working with them. They were followed by some words from our Russia 2018 Local Organizing Committee media officers, who were also rock stars and did an excellent job managing all of us. It was nice to think that I had volunteered with them at the very first event back in 2015!
We wrapped up with enthusiasm and were looking forward to the next match between the home team of Russia and Saudi Arabia! I headed out into the chilly, but near perfect, St. Petersburg White Night light at nearly 11pm, smiling to myself and appreciating that my friend Katya’s apartment, where I was staying was only one metro stop away. Still, I thought, the walk through the regulated stadium security areas was about 30 minutes from the media center. I arrived back at the apartment only to stay up for a few more hours rehashing the day with Katya, a World Cup volunteer based at the airport. This developed into our own little ritual as we swapped crazy and fascinating stories each day. With the Gazprom headquarters towering in the distance like a James Bond villain lair, I soaked up the cruise ship port terminal view in the rainbow twilight, reflecting on the past 12 hours as I dozed off.
I started playing soccer when I was five years old. My heroes were the US Women’s National Team and nearly 20 years ago, I watched them beat Brazil in the 1999 Women’s World Cup semi-finals before they eventually became champions. You know that time Brandi Chastain ripped off her jersey, revealing that black Nike sports bra in euphoria? It was surreal to be there witnessing the World Cup in person. But being on the pitch sideline in front of the Moroccan team tonight , I realized that I was still the same little girl looking up with wonder and cheering with fans around the world. Anything is still possible.