Not every footballer can claim that fans send them smiles on social media. But that is what Sweden and CSKA Moscow midfielder Pontus Wernbloom experienced when Russian fans organised a flash mob on Instagram and Twitter to make him feel more at home in Russia.
The 29-year-old recently signed a new contract with CSKA Moscow, by the end of which he will have lived in Russia for six-and-a-half years. But his love for the country, which will host the 2018 FIFA World Cup™, did not blossom overnight. And when Wernbloom complained to the press that he had failed to encounter a single smile in Moscow, CSKA supporters created a special hashtag, #smileforPontus, on social networks especially for the Swede.
“It was really fun and unusual,” Wernbloom recalled in an interview with FIFA.com. Indeed, the player liked the campaign so much that he thanked fans by putting a special smile of his own on Instagram.
“I’ve always liked our fans. What I find funniest of all is when fans take off their clothes even when it’s ten degrees below zero. You die of cold out there on the pitch, and these guys stand there naked from the waist up, and they couldn’t care less.”
When asked about his initial comments to the press, Wernbloom said his remarks about adapting to Russian life had been taken the wrong way by some fans. “I was describing life in all big cities, not just Moscow. I grew up in a small town in Sweden, and I don’t think Russia has these tiny little towns,” said the midfielder, who was born in Kungalv, a town with a population of 22,000 people. “It was even difficult for me to live in Stockholm. There are so many people there; they walk by without saying hello. You live such an anonymous existence, and I don’t really like that. It’s ‘Big City’ syndrome. And Moscow is 10-15 times bigger than Stockholm.”
Wernbloom, who has won 48 caps for Sweden, has never stayed on at previous clubs as long as he has been at CSKA, something he reminded the press about shortly before extending his contract with the club.
“It was such a wily tactic for contract negotiating,” Wernbloom said with a laugh. “I really didn’t have any reason to leave Russia. I’ve spent my best footballing years and played my best games here. At first, life in Moscow wasn’t what I was used to. It was a different mentality and a different culture. But over the past three-and-a-half years I’ve already learned how things work here. Now my family and I really like it here.”
*Closer to Mongolia than Sweden
*The holding midfielder particularly appreciates that he has been able to travel so widely throughout Russia, most recently having been to Irkutsk with his team for a cup match. “When I was in Irkutsk I had a look at a map on my phone and realised that I was closer to Mongolia than I was to Sweden. And that’s cool. It’ll be something to tell the grandkids.”
Another reason Wernbloom stayed in Russia was CSKA head coach Leonid Slutsky, who recently agreed to coach the Russian national team in addition to the Moscow giants. He is someone Wernbloom holds particularly dear.
“For me, Slutsky really is the best coach," Wernbloom said. "I don’t think I’ll ever play in a team where I want to go to training more than I do at CSKA. We have a great sense of freedom. In Europe it can sometimes be a real* *kindergarten: they tell you how you need to prepare for a game, how to behave, what to eat, how many hours you have to sleep.
"I’ve been playing football for 20 years now, and I know perfectly well what’s best for me. Slutsky doesn’t tell us how we should prepare ourselves, but rather defers to us. I do what I consider necessary, and I like that. It’s thanks to this that there’s a great atmosphere in the team. And when you love your coach, then you’re willing to follow him into battle.”
Wernbloom will have the chance to show his adopted homeland to his team-mates if Sweden qualify for Russia 2018 – something he would clearly relish.
“I think all tourists will really like it here," Wernbloom said. "They’ll be able to find anything their heart desires in Moscow – restaurants, nightlife, football, museums. It’s a city that never sleeps. And it’s definitely worth coming to see."
— Toke Møller Theilade (@TokeTheilade) May 31, 2014