Walter Morales has two tickets for himself and his girlfriend to follow Argentina in this year’s FIFA World Cup in Russia, but the thrill of watching Lionel Messi and others has come with a growing concern: Russian.
“I asked everyone who’d been to Russia the same question: ‘Do they speak English or another language?’” the 35-year old lawyer from Buenos Aires said. “But the answer was always the same. No, nothing. Zilch. Zip. It’s a bit scary.”
The remedy, Morales said, was to enrol in Russian classes at the Russian Consulate in Buenos Aires’ Culture Center.
Morales and his partner, Marisol, are part of a growing number of Latin Americans who are trying to learn the language of Leo Tolstoy and Lev Yashin in time for this year’s tournament, which kicks off in Moscow on June 14 and runs for a month in 12 cities across Russia.
Eight of the 32 teams taking part in the tournament are from Latin America, ranging from the five-time winners Brazil, to debutants Panama.
Of the 10 nationalities who purchased the most tickets up until this week, five of them were from South America, FIFA said.
Up and down the continent language teachers have been working overtime to teach fans Russian, even if it is only the basics like zdrastvuite (hello) and spasibo (thank you).
“We normally begin a new class each month, but in February we had to open two and now [in March] we had to start an additional class,” said Carolina Gaspar, director of the House of Russian Culture, a language center in Puebla, Mexico, where 150 Mexicans are studying Russian.
It is a similar story in Colombia, where the National University of Colombia Foreign Language Department was forced to reopen its shuttered Russian language program to cope with the demand.
“The same happened with Brazil [in 2014],” said Ligia Cortes Cardenas, the department’s coordinator of extension courses. “There was a big rise in interest in Portuguese during the World Cup [there].”
The head of the language center at the University of Buenos Aires said more than 100 people each day were asking about lessons and the number of people signing up for Russian this semester is expected to grow by 30 percent to 300 students.
Galina Rumiantseva, the curator of Russian language at the school where Morales is studying, said she would open more spaces on her courses, but added: “Russian is a very difficult language.”
Peruvian student Jose Rodriguez Ramos agreed, pointing out the treacherous confusion between new letters and old sounds.
“It’s difficult to learn the Cyrillic alphabet,” said Ramos, a 28-year-old who was not even born the last time Peru qualified for the World Cup in 1982. “First because it is a different alphabet, but also because it’s a little similar. You see a P, but it’s an R and pronounced like an R.”
The difficulties are daunting, but there are good reasons Morales and his fellow fans are insisting — and they do not all have to do with self-improvement.
“The letters are really weird,” he said. “It’s not easy. The only thing I can focus on right now is Messi scoring goals.”
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