There should be a real World Cup on now.  I wish there was.

Instead, we have an ersatz version coming up just to coincide with this year’s Black Friday sale, which is handy for those looking to snaffle a cheap Blaupunkt telly in time for Ecuador v Senegal, but miserable for everyone else.

To the detached observer, there are depressing themes common to the upcoming World Cup and the last one, Russia in 2018.  Both were awarded to bidders with abominable human rights records, and questionable geopolitical ambitions, amid an almighty stench of corruption.

But, to those of us who feel unable to be detached observers – who insist on our enjoyment of top-level professional football even while feeling discomforted by its monstrosity, who know that cognitive dissonance comes as standard – the two tournaments could scarcely be more different.  Russia 2018 was everything a World Cup should be – summer carnival, cultural exchange, and feast for the senses.  Whatever else it may have been, it was a joy.  Qatar will be a bland simulacrum, a charmless husk of a thing, masquerading as a World Cup.

The population of Qatar – excluding migrant workers / expatriates (who would not claim to be Qatari) is 313,000, less than a third of that of County Durham.  Do not expect a rich cultural exchange.  The depressing fact that 6,500 migrant workers have died during the construction of the stadiums in Qatar is made even more depressing by virtue of the stadiums themselves being utterly pointless, white elephants which will almost certainly be three-quarters empty for most matches.  The football will be real, but the experience will be virtual.

I loved Russia.  I was fortunate enough to go with my Dad, who had long insisted that if Egypt were to qualify for a World Cup, we would go together.  This was Egypt’s first World Cup in 28 years, and Dad was as good as his word.  We went.  And, though Hector Cuper’s ultra-negative tactics caused us to lose all three matches – to Uruguay in Yekaterinburg, to Russia in St Petersburg, and to Saudi Arabia in Volgograd – and we were the first team on the plane home (a national disgrace: we did not believe we were there to make up the numbers), my two weeks in Russia were a time I will never forget, and will always recall fondly.

I will never forget singing the Egyptian national anthem with Dad – a 67 year old man wearing face-paint and a pharaonic head-dress – in that weird temporary stand in Yekaterinburg.  Egyptians do not hide their feelings, and there were plenty of tears around us.  That moment, as we sang “Bilady, Bilady, Bilady” marked the accomplishment of one of Dad’s two goals for his football-supporting career.  The other, being to see Newcastle United lift a trophy, remains tantalisingly out of reach.

If the singing of the anthem before the Uruguay match was a moment to be a proud Egyptian, the aftermath of the defeat to Russia (which meant we were already out after two matches) saw Dad switching to Geordie.  As we trudged from the Krestovky Stadium back to the metro station, Dad – whose mother tongue is Arabic and who was talking to fellow Egyptians – was so angry about the team’s performance that he gave up on Arabic entirely.  “That fuckin’ Ahmed Fathy, man!” he complained to anyone within earshot who would both listen and understand.

Wherever you’re from, spending 40 years watching Newcastle United win nothing will ensure that your chosen language for a volley of football-related invective is English.  I smiled.

Most of my memories do not particularly concern the football (we were back at Heathrow before the group stage was over, and I watched England’s progress to the semi-finals here in London).  What I mainly have are cherished holiday memories, of a country which – whatever one might think of its current leadership – is a magnificent place to visit, and people who were extraordinarily pleasant and welcoming, none more so than the man outside the stadium in St Petersburg wearing a hoodie which proudly (if a little intimidating) exclaimed: “I AM FROM NOVOSIBIRSK!!! ASK ME!!!”.  (Novosibirsk, by the way, is 3,839 km from St Petersburg – quite a trip to watch what was, essentially, a home game).

I have been fortunate enough to travel to great European cities, but St Petersburg – particularly in the “white nights” of June when it does not get dark at all (and which coincided with Egypt playing Russia there) – with its grand boulevards, and the Hermitage as the jewel in its crown, puts them all in the shade. As for Moscow, which Dad and I visited en-route to the dead rubber against Saudi Arabia in Volgograd, its subway stations are as beautiful as art galleries, and I can strongly recommend a trip to the Sanduny baths, if your idea of fun is (like mine) standing naked in a hot sauna while obese Russian men take it in turns to wave birch twigs around near your testicles, before you jump into a barrel of ice.

A fond mention, too, for Gorodishche, the “work settlement” 10km outside Volgograd, where Dad and I stayed in a family’s house for two nights.  We thought the taxi driver had got it wrong, as he dropped us off on an anonymous cul-de-sac on a housing estate.  But that’s Russia – beyond the high-end hotels (which were exorbitantly expensive), accommodation was a lottery, and many of the “hotels” are just re-purposed individual floors of Soviet-era apartment blocks.  This place, booked on Airbnb, seemed passable.

Dad began chain-smoking, cursing his son who shuffled up and down the deserted street, looking for some 3G and wondering what had gone wrong.  As it transpired, we were in the right place after all, and ten minutes later were being hugged by a very maternal lady called Victoria, talking about Ahmed Musa and drinking terrible coffee with two gigantic Nigerians in the kitchen, who had been in town for their match with Iceland.  We wheeled Victoria’s son in his buggy.  We struggled in the supermarket as nobody spoke a word of English, and so we only bought what we could impersonate.  Chicken was easy.  Cheese was not.  We had chicken.

Overall, Russia felt like a treat, almost a throwback to going on holiday before the world became so small.  Why would anyone in a supermarket in Gorodishche speak English?  For thousands of kilometres in any direction, there is only Russia.  It seemed as though most supporters appreciated the privilege of being there.  The relatively few English fans who did make the trip (the FA and Government having done an impressive job of discouraging troublemakers from going) were good company.  Supporters of South American teams walked around town in enormous groups, all wearing their kits – like tour groups at the Louvre.  Everyone cheered in the St Petersburg fan park when Mexico went ahead against Germany, including the Germans themselves.

There was an amusing moment at a busy intersection.  St Petersburg was buzzing with supporters from every country in the tournament, all of whom were waiting patiently to cross.  All, that is, except us.  Egyptians – and only Egyptians – darted around the traffic in various directions, to the bewilderment of almost everyone looking on.  We may not be able to get out of the group, but we will cross your damn road when we want.

I loved Russia, and liked its people.  I know where I stand on Putin, and the current conflict.  My wife and I have two young Ukrainian women, from Kharkiv, living with us.  They are trying to build a new life for themselves here in London.  While we help them to navigate the bureaucracy associated with claiming benefits, getting a job, and opening a bank account (and they try to get to grips with a transport system in which the Circle line isn’t circular, the Overground goes under ground, the Underground goes over ground, and the Northern line goes the furthest south), their fathers are at war.

We try not to talk about it.  I know which side I am on, but I still think Russia is a wonderful place and I hope to go back there one day.  Although maybe not to Gorodishche.

I won’t be going to Qatar.  Very few will.  Fewer, still, will find very much if they do go.  But when 2026 comes around – and the draw is made for the World Cup in the US, Canada and Mexico – I wouldn’t rule out being tempted by another World Cup jaunt, work and family commitments permitting.  In the meantime, I’ll just be hoping and praying that Newcastle United – finally – give my Dad what he’s always wanted.

Yousef Hatem – @yousef_1892