Confederations Cup: All Whites fans take on celebrity status in Russia but heavy security takes some getting used to
Over 50,000 happy Russians poured out of the Krestovsky Stadium in St Petersburg, while a handful of Kiwi fans and family were left pondering what will lie in wait for the next two All Whites matches, after their opening loss at the Confederations Cup.
Only a few dozen New Zealanders made it to the Russian "Capital of the North" to support Anthony Hudson and his team on Sunday (NZT), but the colourful Kiwi outfits jumped out in the crowd and became selfie magnets for the locals.
Some of the New Zealand fans from Christchurch were struggling to make it across the huge square outside the Hermitage Museum as excited Russians treated them like celebrities, begging the Kiwis to pose with them, their family, or their children.
The warmth and hospitality of the home supporters towards the underdogs from Down Under was a stark contrast to the stern treatment and grumpy faces of their uniformed countrymen.
St Petersburg has all the wealth, glitz and glamour of any modern European city, but old habits created by centuries of authoritarian rule and bureaucracy are hard to get rid of.
Purchasing match tickets is often the biggest hurdle for travelling fans, but in Russia the officialdom is proving to be the major challenge for the fans.
Getting the right paperwork to get into the country had been an exercise in patience and a level of Soviet-style rigour that easy-going Kiwis are simply not used to.
Every fan had to go through a rigorous process to be awarded a Fan ID, an identification card that is similar to an accreditation for the media or officials. Even with the right paperwork, it proved to be a challenge for some supporters to get past the intimidating and cranky border control staff. If one detail or number on your paperwork does not compute with the customs database, you can find yourself stuck at the airport for hours, as one group discovered.
On match day, all Russian fans also carried their own Fan ID, which at least showed that the foreigners were not specifically picked on, but it also revealed a level of security checks for ordinary fans that is unprecedented in Fifa tournaments.
Sadly, this may just be the world we live in these days and after a recent terrorist attack in the St Petersburg metro, it is difficult to argue.
The scanning of the tickets and Fan ID, and the property searches at the gates were more like an airport than a football match, but were conducted by volunteers, as armed security forces were an intriguing absence at the stadium, as well as in the main tourist hot spots around St Petersburg.
Where we became accustomed to hordes of machine gun-wielding police and army staff at any major event around the world these days, the security staff in St Petersburg were discretely at a distance and out of sight.
Once you get into the glamorous Krestovsky Stadium, you can only be impressed by the most expensive stadium in the world. Construction delays over 11 years and alleged corruption pushed the price tag past the $NZ1.7 billion.
There is not a bad seat in the house, but they clearly forgot to budget for toilets, which were already falling apart on the opening night. The crumbling urinals had an additional ambience of a 1980s pub as hundreds of fagging Russians filled the "non-smoking" toilets with a thick haze.
Once these Russian supporters got the victory they came for, the stadium announcer informed the fans they would have to wait to be released in sections.
"This can take an hour," explained one Russian, matter-of-factly. Asked why this was done, he shrugged his shoulders. "We have done this for years at Russian games. Just the way they do things around here."
As we are waiting to leave, Russian security staff suddenly get a panicked look in their eyes as All Whites captain Chris Wood comes storming up the stands and demands the staff to open a small gate.
He is quickly followed by Ryan Thomas as both players use the opportunity to say hello to their family and steal a quick kiss from their partners.
The Russian security staff and fans look stunned and Thomas even poses for a few photos.
This wonderful moment was a stark contrast to the 2010 World Cup where New Zealand players ended up in a scuffle with overzealous South African police who refused to let them celebrate with their supporters in the stands after the 0-0 draw with Paraguay in Polokwane.
The New Zealand fans were among the last to leave the St Petersburg stadium, just in time to watch President Putin's Sikorsky helicopter take off.
One group of European-based fans travelling as the Flying Kiwis line up for more selfies with their new Russian friends.
"At least we beat the Russian supporters in our friendly this afternoon," says organiser Matt Fejos, referring to the Kiwis' 3-0 victory at the Dynamo Stadium that even drew TV coverage.
"So I guess we are even now."