"Russian is a very difficult language," claim countless foreigners who move to Russia. However, there are still those who almost manage to perfect it. Nicolas Lombaerts has played at Zenit St. Petersburg for nine years and over that time the Belgian centre-back has adapted to life in Russia, becoming a rare case of a non-native who speaks the language fluently.
"I don't know every word and I make a lot of mistakes, but in order to communicate the main thing is not to worry and don't be afraid of getting it wrong," Lombaerts explained to FIFA.com. "People will correct you and then you won't make the same mistake next time round. My Russian is far from ideal but I can find a common tongue with everybody."
Foreigners in Russia also often freeze at the first sight of the Cyrillic alphabet, which is usually not what they are used to back home. For Nicolas, however, this is not a problem. "I studied Greek at school in Bruges so I am used to a different alphabet. I quickly learned Cyrillic and thought that everything would then be easy – but it was too early to rejoice!
"My [knee] injury meant that I had to return to Belgium for a long time and wasn't able to practise my Russian. [In total] it took four years before I could say to myself: 'Now I can live here, my Russian is good enough for any situation and I can get by!'"
The injury Lombaerts mentioned elevated him to hero-status in St. Petersburg. He put his body on the line to produce a crucial assist in a UEFA Cup 2007/08 Round of 16 tie against Villarreal, at the expense of his own health. Zenit went on to lift the trophy, while the self-sacrificing Belgian spent nine months on the treatment table.
Most people when learning a language simply go to a teacher and study, but for a professional footballer who represents his country – Lombaerts has featured 41 times for Belgium, scoring three goals along the way – this was simply not an option.
"I hired a tutor but as players we're constantly travelling around for away matches or to join up with the national team," Lombaerts admitted. "It's not always easy to agree a time for the next lesson. If you want to learn a language, you have to work at it and do your homework but at the same time you also have to prepare yourself for matches. My teacher quickly started to get angry because of my negligence.
"Then the season ends and you're off again on holiday or to play for your country. I had to part ways with my tutor and I studied myself instead. I learned the grammar from exercise books and new words through online dictionaries. When you hear a word you don't know, you look it up on your smartphone."
And just like anyone in a different country, language barriers can prove troublesome for footballers too, as the Zenit defender revealed. "Honestly, I still run into problems even today," he said. "Especially when you get stopped by the traffic police. You start to get nervous and forget even the simplest words.
"More often, however, my Russian comes in handy. Once I had to order a taxi for my wife's sister and she didn't know how to order it. I ended up phoning the driver and explaining to him where they were and how to get there because he just couldn't find them."
*'Everyone who comes to Russia is pleasantly surprised'
*There are many different languages spoken in the dressing room at Zenit, but as a matter of principle Lombaerts communicates to his Russian team-mates in their own tongue. The other foreigners at the Saint Petersburg club may have varying levels of Russian but the majority cannot get enough of the country itself, insists the 31-year-old centre-half who moved to Zenit from Gent in 2007 and may end up seeing out the rest of his career at the club.
"Everyone who comes to Russia, especially Saint Petersburg, is pleasantly surprised. People in Europe often think of Russia as a cold country full of unfriendly people. My wife and I do everything we can to change this misconception: we speak about the city and the country and explain where is best to go. It turns out that I'm not only a footballer and an interpreter but a tour guide as well!"
The locals in Saint Petersburg have given their stamp of approval that Nicolas, whom they often call Kolya in the Russian manner, has become completely Russified. "My wife and I often joke about this! I sometimes say that I would have been better off as a Russian than a Belgian! That's just a joke, of course."
Lombaerts is joking because he fully intends on getting over his latest injury to travel with Belgium to UEFA EURO 2016. "I want to play at the EURO and I hope Belgium and Russia cross paths in the final! I'll give a bit of advice to fans coming to Russia for the Confederations Cup and the World Cup: learn a bit of the language. The locals will be delighted even if you only know some very simple words and they will be even more hospitable."
If you reach the linguistic heights and are able to sing the national anthem, like Lombaerts has done on more than one occasion, the Russians will be ready to do absolutely anything for you. "You won't have to pay for a single thing in Russia!" the Belgian laughed.
*Nicolas Lombaerts' phrase book
*Visitors from all over the world will be arriving in the country for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. Here are the Russian phrases Lombaerts recommends for those planning on coming.
*First of all, as Nicolas has hinted, you should learn expressions of politeness: "zdrastvooyte" (hello) or "privyet" (hi) ["The second is easier to pronounce!," Lombaerts remarked], "dobryi dyen" (good day), "do svidaniya" (good bye) or "paka" (bye) ["I usually say 'paka paka'," Nico added as a tip].
*Football expressions like "bolel’schik" (fan) ["It's not that easy to pronounce, better to say 'fanat'," Nicolas advised] and "kak papast’ na stadion?" (how do I get to the stadium?), or in Lombaerts' case "kak papast’ v Ermitage?" (how do I get to the Hermitage?] since he and his family love visiting Saint Petersburg's most famous museum.
*"Dva piva pozhalusta" (two beers, please). If you say this one a couple of times, it will surely be followed up by another: "gdye zdyes' tualyet?" (where is the toilet?).
*Souvenir names: "matryoshka" (Russian dolls), "ikra" (caviar), "vodka" and "samovar" (a traditional Russian kettle).
*Local football chants like "Russkiye vpiryod!" (go, Russians!), which is the first that came to Lombaerts' mind ["I love it!"]. There's also "Gol! Nada gol!" (we need a goal!) and "Myi silneye vsekh!" (We're better than all the rest!).