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From Russia With Love

The French national soccer team’s recent victory in the World Cup was preceded by some seriously exciting semifinal matches in Russia. And thanks to FIFA’s official timekeeper, Hublot, we were field-side to witness it all.

A bird’s-eye view of St. Petersburg’s Krestovsky Stadium during the France vs. Belgium match. 

 

As a counterpoint to some recent news developments, Mother Russia extended a warm aura of hospitality to the thousands of World Cup attendees that crisscrossed her borders this summer, taking in some of the best soccer matches in the world. Stadiums shined, security was high but not intrusive, and Russian cities, no doubt refreshed and bedazzled ahead of the games, put their charms center stage for international fans. While Russia’s own national team was knocked out by Croatia on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals, its fans were universally warm and characteristically existential about the situation.

As an honored guest of FIFA’s official timekeeper, Hublot watches, we had a unique and up-close view of the semifinal matches leading up to France’s dramatic 4-2 victory over Croatia in the finals.

St. Petersburg: France 1, Belgium 0
For Europe, St. Petersburg is actually a relatively “new” city. Peter the Great constructed his vision of a royal government center out of coastal marshes that were previously a part of Sweden in 1703. The entire central part of the city is a UNESCO heritage site, with all buildings maintaining standard period height and often sporting vintage ochre paint hues of sandy yellow, mint green and light blue.

Hublot’s new Big Bang Referee smart watch.

 

Krestovsky Stadium, however, is a massive modern structure, and it was there that we saw the tactically
played semifinal between France and Belgium. Coming off a strong victory over Brazil in the quarterfinals, Belgium was aggressive from the get-go but just couldn’t work around Les Bleus’ strong defense. France, biding its time, looked to Samuel Umtiti at 51 minutes in, who slipped into the box ahead of his defender and snapped a perfect header into the net for the first and winning goal of the match. Belgium continued its salvo but just could not score.

Regardless of when you visit the city, the Corinthia Hotel St. Petersburg is a perfect base of operations (the French team apparently agreed as they were staying there with us during the semifinals as well). Rates from $164 per night, Nevsky Prospect, 57, +7.812.380.2001

Moscow: Croatia 2, England 1
Emotions ran high at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium for the faceoff between England and Croatia. Croatia, which ultimately made its best showing in the World Cup since 1998, brought out a multitude of devoted fans, while England pinned its hopes on a strong young team and a virtually all-encompassing cultural imperative to “bring the Cup home” after three decades of disappointing showings. Standard match play was dramatic and aggressive, leading to a 1-1 draw at the end of regulation play. All hearts stopped and most voices cheered when Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic skulled in a whiplash of a header in the second period of overtime play at 109 minutes in. For the next 10 minutes or so, England desperately rallied, making two dramatic attempts to no avail as the whistle blew at 120 minutes.
Celebrations ran into the night, especially in the neighborhood of the Hotel National, which hosted us for this match. Just off legendary Red Square and a neighbor of the Four Seasons Hotel Moscow, the National, built in 1903, is Moscow’s eternally elegant grande dame and features stunning views of the Kremlin and St. Basil’s Cathedral in the distance. Rates from $300 per night, 15/1 Mokhovaya St., +7.495.258.7000

Hublot Big Bang Referee Watch
Ubiquitous at all matches, of course, was the sponsored Hublot handheld match and substitution clock along the sidelines. But this year, referees also sported and torture-tested a new smart watch from Hublot with a limited-edition run of the same watch available to the public. The Big Bang Referee Watch is the company’s first foray into the tech-enabled timepiece category. Running Google’s Wear OS, the burly 49 mm Big Bang is rendered in lightweight and durable titanium and Kevlar, with a special news and updating feed before and during World Cup matches and a bevy of soccer-related apps to enjoy now that the Cup is over. Limited to 2018 editions, $5,200, Geneva Seal, 112 E. Oak St., 312.944.3100