Panov basking in past glory

Panov basking in past glory

Aleksandr Panov

It's not often that one gets to travel with their heroes of the sporting world but fans on the FIFA World Cup free train from Moscow to Sochi were in for a pleasant surprise.

Former Russian international Aleksandr Panov, a man in the news for the right as well as wrong reasons for years, decided that free transport was the way to go as he embarked on a 36-hour journey to watch Belgium take on Panama in the quaint seaside town.

“I have a ticket for Belgium vs Panama and I'm in this train because they don't charge any money. My friend booked the tickets and told me about this train so I thought I might as well use it,” was his frank response.

Panov faced a barrage of autograph and photograph-hungry children and he obliged them all with a pleasant smile.

“I do get recognised in many places. Many children took my autograph and photograph early in the day. How do I feel? I feel nothing special because I'm involved in helping kids play football. I played for fans always and that's how it has been.”

His relationship with fans though had seen a bad patch in the recent past.

After his retirement in 2010, having played for the likes of Zenit St Petersburg and Saint Etienne in France, the striker was embroiled in a drug scandal and invited the ire of Zenit faithful after sporting a Spartak Moscow kit during a clash between the two sides a year ago.

Unflustered by the kicking/spitting fans, Panov explained: “There are different emotions to being a fan and a player. It's the sight and emotions that not everyone can understand.

“I am a fan of Spartak but I played for Zenit. It's life and it can change. I started supporting them only for the last two years. Even today it continues.”

Panov's moment in the sun came in 2000 when he scored a brace in Russia's 3-2 victory over the then world champions France in a Euro qualifier.

“For me, that match was very important because it was the second match I played for Russia. And when I go to Stade de France and see 80000 supporters, it was an indescribable feeling.

Despite the nervousness, I managed to be confident and fight stress and took it to my advantage,” he recollected fondly. “It was a big moment in my career. Every player that plays against great foreign teams should treat it like the final game of his life like I did, and it paid off."