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The World Cup begins Thursday, with host country Russia playing Saudi Arabia in Moscow at 11am ET. For soccer fans, the Cup is the event: The most-watched sports competition in the world, even more than the Olympics. Aviation enthusiasts, on the other hand, may not be anticipating the Cup so eagerly — but there is a lot of exciting AvGeek material to be found at this year’s competition.
We’re talking about the team’s airplanes.
Unlike the New England Patriots, who play a different kind of football, the 32 national soccer teams competing in Russia do not fly in their own jets. Nation-level soccer does not have a season — the World Cup, held every four years in a different country, is the closest thing to one — and it would not make financial sense to have a dedicated team aircraft. So, national teams move around in chartered aircraft. And with 23 players, at least as many staff plus traveling press, they can’t be the usual biz jets that fly celebrities around: You need a big airplane. Often the teams come from far away, and that means a rich trove of rarely-seen aircraft for AvGeeks to feast their eyes on.
Here are some of the most interesting airplanes bringing the teams to the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
England and Brazil
Why are these two together? Because they took the same plane.
But no, they didn’t travel together to save money. They just happen to have chartered the same Boeing 757, a 62-seat VIP jet operated by Gain Jet, a private jet charter company based in Greece. Here it is below on June 11 carrying the Brazilian team to the venue of their initial games in Sochi, coming from Vienna, where the Brazilians played a friendly match against Austria. For the record, the perennial favorites to win the Cup trounced the Austrians 3-0.
A quick look at the flight log for the plane, with the Greek registration SX-RFA, tells us that after Sochi it went straight to Birmingham, UK — where it evidently picked up the England team, because there it is at the St. Petersburg airport on June 12 behind star striker and captain Harry Kane, who disembarked earlier.
The other perennial favorites didn’t go as fancy. They came on a plane not unlike their brand of soccer: Elegant but practical and dependable, a hard worker that gets the job done every time. It’s an Airbus A321 in the colors of Lufthansa, the national carrier, which put a big sticker on the fuselage fitting the occasion: Mannschaftsflieger, “the plane that flies the team.” No German needs to be told just which team we’re talking about here — Die Mannschaft stands alone. The Squad, period. And in case it wasn’t clear that Lufthansa is just as soccer-crazed as the rest of this otherwise sober nation, check out how it changed its name on the plane to Fanhansa.
Sharp-eyed AvGeeks will have noticed that the team plane bears the airline’s new colors, rolled out earlier this year, while the jets behind it still sport Lufthansa’s classic yellow-circle tail. The World Cup is a big marketing event, and Lufthansa wasn’t going to miss out on this occasion to publicize its new corporate identity. And because this jet is a regular A321 in commercial service, with a tight 200-seat configuration, look for it at airports around Europe this summer.
Denmark and Sweden
Also flying a regular plane from their national airline were Denmark and Sweden, which share SAS with Norway — a unique case of tri-national airline. European-configured SAS planes aren’t very spacious, but Russia is just a quick flight away.
The Danes took an Airbus A320 from Copenhagen to Anapa, on the Black Sea.
The Swedes were flown instead on a Boeing 737-800 to nearby Gelendzhik from Stockholm.
Swiss Air Lines is a member of the Lufthansa Group, and like Lufthansa it flies the Airbus A321 — and it used one to take the team to Samara, where it plays its first round of games. Inside, Swiss A321s are a lot roomier than Lufthansa’s, at least up front, and it’s safe to say the players arrived a little less cramped than the Germans.
When it comes to airlines going all out for the World Cup, though, there is nobody who can stand up to the Egyptians this year. The team landed in Grozny, Chechnya, on June 10 aboard an absolutely stunning Egyptair 737-800 in special soccer colors featuring the national team.
That’s right, the players on the outside of the plane are the same as those inside. Unfortunately, they do not really stand a chance on the pitch. But at the airport, they are crushing it. Photo by Yelena Afonina/TASS via Getty Images
The Spaniards, unlike the Egyptians, have a decent shot at winning the whole thing. Also unlike the Egyptians, they got in on a bland airplane: A shiny new, but unimaginatively painted, Boeing 787-9 owned by Spanish airline Air Europa. At least they had lie-flat biz class seats for the 2,200-mile flight from Madrid to Krasnodar.
Tunisia and Panama
Those two nations got a lift from the home airline. The Panamanians got a special charter on an Aeroflot Airbus A320 from Moscow to Saransk, about 400 miles away…
…and the Tunisians flew to Moscow on a 737 chartered from Rossiya, another airline in the Aeroflot group.
Those airliners in standard commercial layout pale in comparison to the jet that brought the Argentinian team to Moscow from Barcelona on June 9. The squad led by Lionel Messi — as good a candidate as any to hoist the trophy after the final game on July 15 — flew on a plane with a logo you might recognize.Photo by Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images
Yes, it’s the Rolling Stones’ airplane. When the old rockers aren’t using it on tour, operator Aeronexus sends this Boeing 767-300ER on VIP missions for other clients, such as the Argentinian national soccer team, which traveled in far more style than its rivals for the title. The plane, registered ZS-NEX in South Africa, can also be tracked, which is rare for private aircraft.
Speaking of style: Remember the Crystal Skye 777, the largest charter jet in the world, which TPG Editor-at-large Zach Honig explored last month, getting a rare look at the $50,000-per-hour plane? That’s what the Uruguay team flew to Nizhny Novgorod on June 10. Since the plane isn’t trackable, we don’t know where they flew from so we can’t hazard a guess at how much they paid. But we do know that, with its enormous range, the VIP-configured Boeing 777 could have easily made the 8,000-mile journey from Uruguay nonstop. And that would be a cool $700,000, give or take. (Edit: After publication, we found out that they really did go nonstop to Russia, according to Spanish news agency EFE, and that the bill was actually $1.4 million.)
Whatever happens to them on the pitch, the Uruguayans have a lock on the title of best AvGeek plane at the World Cup.
Featured image of the Costa Rican team disembarking from a Brussels Airlines Airbus in St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo International Airport by Alexander Demianchuk/TASS via Getty Images
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