But for the Russian Revolution, 2018 might not be the first time the World Cup came to this vast country.
In Samara’s football museum, a series of basement-level rooms crammed with over 17,000 pieces of memorabilia, founder Sergei Moiseevich holds court.
“The football pioneers of Samara in the early 1900s wanted to organise an international football tournament here,” he explains.
“But then the October Revolution happened.”
Addicted to the game ever since he attended a match as a two-year-old, Moiseevich’s enthusiasm is palpable.
“We do not choose our religion or our country,” he says via a translator. “To me, football is my country.”
His museum houses the boots that scored the first ever goal at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, which hosts the World Cup final on 15 July, and the shirt of the first-ever foreign player to join a Russian team following the fall of the Soviet Union.
The local team, FC Krylia Sovetov (‘Wings of the Soviets’), has had mixed fortunes of late.
Financial difficulties almost forced it to close in 2010, before widespread protests – including a hunger strike by Moiseevich and others – precipitated government intervention.
The World Cup has provided a boost for FC Krylia Sovetov, which will move into the Samara Arena following the tournament, and the city as a whole.
Samara – formerly known as Kuibyshev – was shut off from the outside world for most of the Soviet era.
During World War Two, Samara was designated the USSR’s alternative capital should Moscow fall to the Germans.
Foreign embassies – including those of Australia and the United States – were moved to city in south-west Russia.
Key government institutions and important factories were also relocated, including the Soviet’s aircraft engineering facilities.
When the war ended and the space race began, Samara’s manufacturing sector became vital to the Soviet space efforts.
In the decades that followed, foreigners were not permitted to visit and travel by residents was strictly controlled.
Such was the sensitivity that cruises down the nearby Volga could only pass the city at night.
The rocket that sent Yuri Gagarin into space was manufactured in Samara, and Gagarin spent time in the town after returning to earth nearby before his hero’s welcome in Moscow.
A 68-metre high test rocket now stands tall over the local space museum, dominating the skyline.
The space sector continues to play an important role in the city, with much of Russia’s ongoing space efforts led from Samara.
“Every family here has some connection to space exploration,” says the director of the local space museum, Elena Kuzina.
Today, Samara – the sixth largest city in Russia – is shaking off its isolated Soviet past.
The World Cup is helping that process.
“Our city was not ready for so many fans,” explains Olesia, a local guide.
“We built new hotels and facilities. The government has also renovated roads and beautified the city. This is great opportunity for Samara.”
The city’s other claim to fame is its beer.
The Zhiguli brewery on the banks of the Volga was founded in 1881 by an intrepid Austrian.
Nationalised following the Revolution, Zhiguli became ubiquitous across the Soviet Union and a synonym for beer.
It remains in operation to this day, and its on-site pub was overrun by Socceroos fans on Wednesday night.
“Our beer is the best in Russia,” explains a brewery employee. “We make it with soul.”
Samara might not have the attractions of Moscow or Saint Petersburg, but its natural beauty and hospitality is winning over visiting fans.
And locals are embracing the opportunity to welcome the world.
“Russia is a champion in all meanings,” says Pieter, a local student. “We just want to get rid of the stupid stereotypes. This is our chance.”
In Samara? Don’t miss
- A stroll down the Embankment along the shores of the mighty Volga. On a sunny day, join the locals for a swim.
- Drinking with locals at Na Dne, a pub on the site of the Zhiguli brewery. Samarans often enjoy dried fish while drinking.
- A good-quality coffee, somewhat of a rarity in Russia, can be found at Cacao-mama.