FEATURE-Soccer-Latin American fans race to learn Russian before World Cup
By Maximilian Heath and Juan Bustamante
BUENOS AIRES, March 14 (Reuters) - Walter Morales has two tickets for him and his girlfriend to follow Argentina in the World Cup but the thrill of watching Lionel Messi and co. has come with a growing concern: Russian.
"I asked everyone who'd been to Russia the same question, 'Do they speak English or another language?'" said the 35-year old lawyer from Buenos Aires. "But the answer was always the same. No, nothing. Zilch. Zip. It's a bit scary."
The remedy, Morales added, was to enrol in Russian classes at the Cultural Centre of the Russian Embassy in Buenos Aires.
Morales and his partner Marisol are part of a growing number of Latin Americans who are trying to learn the language of Leo Tolstoy and Lev Yashin in time for this year's tournament, which kicks off in Moscow on June 14 and runs for a month in 12 cities across Russia.
Eight of the 32 teams taking part in the tournament are from Latin America, ranging from the five-time winners Brazil, to debutants Panama.
Of the 10 nationalities who purchased the most tickets up until this week, five of them were from South America, FIFA said.
Up and down the continent language teachers have been working overtime to teach fans Russian, even if it is only the basics like "zdrastvuite" (hello) and "spasibo" (thank you).
"We normally begin a new class each month but in February we had to open two and now (in March) we had to start an additional class," said Carolina Gaspar, director of the House of Russian Culture, a language centre in Puebla, Mexico, where 150 Mexicans are studying Russian.
It's a similar story in Colombia, where the Foreign Language Department at the National University was forced to reopen its shuttered Russian language program to cope with the demand.
"The same happened with Brazil (in 2014)," said Ligia Cortes Cardenas, the department's coordinator of extension courses. "There was a big rise in interest in Portuguese during the World Cup (there)."
The head of the language centre at the University of Buenos Aires said more than 100 people each day were asking about lessons and the number of people signing up for Russian this semester is expected to grow by 30 percent to 300 students.
'VERY DIFFICULT LANGUAGE'
Galina Rumiantseva, the curator of Russian language at the school where Morales is studying said she will open more spaces on her courses but warned, "Russian is a very difficult language."
Peruvian student Jose Rodriguez Ramos agreed, pointing out the treacherous confusion between new letters and old sounds.
"It's difficult to learn the Cyrillic alphabet," said Ramos, a 28-year-old who was not even born the last time Peru qualified for the World Cup in 1982.
"First because it is a different alphabet, but also because it's a little similar. You see a P but it's an R and pronounced like an R."
The difficulties are daunting but there are good reasons Morales and his fellow fans are insisting - and they don't all have to do with self-improvement.
"The letters are really weird," he said. "It's not easy. The only thing I can focus on right now is Messi scoring goals." (Writing by Andrew Downie Editing by Christian Radnedge)