Across from Trump Palace tower, hundreds of Russia soccer fans congregated at the RK Village Plaza shopping center in Sunny Isles on Saturday. They were focused on celebrating the Russian team's accomplishments to date, instead of pinning hopes on future prospects in the FIFA tournament.
Viewers at RK Village Plaza said Russia's advancement to the quarterfinals was the best thing to happen to their country in recent memory. In the past four years, they said, people living in Russia have suffered from Western economic sanctions, harsher government crackdowns on opposition leaders, and most recently, an increase of the pension age.
RK Village saw three main strands of supporters celebrating Russia's performance in the quarterfinals. Parents with small kids went to Family Fresh Cafe to eat fruity treats among brightly colored walls. Adults who wanted a louder, more exciting environment went to Old Samovar. People who desired something in between headed to Granier Bakery.
While some Russians who viewed Saturday's match have been in South Florida permanently for decades, others said they were more transient. Many Russians in Sunny Isles have second homes in Russia and travel between the countries frequently. Sunny Isles fans said that many of their peers travelled to Russia to watch the game in-person.
Over coffee and orange juice at Granier Bakery, Yuri Klebanov explained that he was surprised the Russian team made it to the quarterfinals. Originally from Odessa and Moscow, he moved to the U.S. in 1990. He runs an export-import business out of New Jersey and was only in Sunny Isles for the weekend. Though separated by distance, he was discussing the Russia-Croatia match with his wife in Kaliningrad via text.
Meet Sunny Isles’ Yuri Klebanov. He came to the US from Odessa in 1990. He said Russia’s success in the World Cup is “unusual” but still the “best thing to happen in Russia in the last two, three years.” pic.twitter.com/dOqmW0nosA
— Claire Thornton (@claire_thornto) July 7, 2018
Klebanov stressed that Russia's quarterfinal placement was unusual.
"They don't have stars, but they play like a team and they have strategy," he said. "We see this as power."
He said the Russia World Cup team is "bringing health and happiness to millions" in Russia, and that their performance is the "best thing to happen in Russia in the last two, three years."
Ekaterina Vagin was also watching the game at Granier Bakery.
"I'm surprised today they played equally with one of the best teams in the world," she said. Vagin moved to the U.S. from the Russian city of Samara in 1999, when she was 14 years old. She works as a financial analyst and has been living in North Miami for the past seven years.
Next door, at Old Samovar, it was one of the restaurant's busiest days of this year. The normal set-up of chairs and tables had been altered to accommodate hundreds of guests sitting in long rows. Some people intently watched the game. Others appeared to prioritize celebrating, drinking beer and eating hot dishes of food.
Natalea Gladchko, who was visiting from Moscow, said she most happy about the fact that Russia was in the quarterfinals in the first place.
"It already is quite good for us, " she said, explaining how it's been over four decades since Russia made it to the FIFA World Cup quarterfinals.
When Russia scored the second goal against Croatia, the crowd at Old Samovar erupted into joyous, shocked screams.
Back at Granier Cafe, the crowd exclaimed at Russian players missed critical shots in the final minutes of the game. Russia lost to Croatia after the overtime kick portion.
Klebanov was disappointed at the loss, but mostly happy about what Russia did achieve. He said he thinks that 10 years from now, strangers in Russia will ask each other about whether they saw the 2018 Russia quarterfinal game.
"They can share this history," he said.