Read the latest of Gary Meenaghan’s Russian Dispatches, a regular blog where he will share observations, triumphs, failures and, most likely, stories of getting lost on long-distance trains during the month-long 2018 World Cup.
MOSCOW - Watch out world, this French team are on course to dominate: Two hours after the final whistle and about 90 minutes after the fireworks exploded above the Luzhniki Stadium crowning France world champions for a second time, a smoked-glass door slowly opened and Croatia’s players, showered and smelling of expensive aftershave, started to weave their way towards their team bus.
Defeated 4-2 and pivoting on a cruel penalty decision, the likes of Luka Modric and Ivan Perisic were refreshingly upbeat. There were no signs of tears. Disappointment, yes, but acceptance that things had not gone their way and that was, unfortunately, football. Modric spoke of how the penalty “killed” his team and questioned why the free-kick that had led to France’s opening goal could not have been reviewed by the referee’s video assistants. Yet he smiled and spoke glowingly of the experience and his pride in creating history for his country.
“Unlucky to lose? I think so,” Modric said. “Everyone has the same sensation that we played well. I think we were the better team. But sometimes the better teams don’t win. We were surprised, especially because the first goal he gave the foul, which wasn’t in my opinion, and they scored from that. After, we recovered, and when we played the best football he gives a penalty to them. It kills you. It’s not easy always to come back, but in the end we tried, we fought until the end and we have to be proud of what we did. But it wasn’t enough to win it.”
The difference between success and victory can be cruelly fine at times. Were it not for the penalty decision, Croatia — much the better team for the first hour in Moscow — may well have gone on to triumph, arriving in Zagreb today as world champions rather than defeated heroes. Instead, as Modric, the last of his 23-man squad, stepped aboard the bus, the smoked-glass door burst open again.
Ousmane Dembele, Samuel Umtiti and Benjamin Mendy — carrying a large wireless bluetooth speaker — waltzed through the press zone, the phalanx of gathered journalists pleading for a few soundbites. The players delivered nothing but some song lyrics, a few dance steps, and wide smiles for their camera phones, which were recording the scenes and broadcasting them live to social media.
It was left then to Les Bleus’ less-brash bunch: Hugo Lloris, Adil Rami, Steven N’zonzi, Ngolo Kante. N’zonzi, who had earlier demanded his limelight-loving teammates let Kante hold the trophy because the tiny Chelsea midfielder was too shy to ask himself, spoke of “the best feeling in the world”. Kante meanwhile whispered that, with such a young squad, the win could be the start of a prolonged period of success for his country.
Rami looked at the win through a wider lens. “Me, I'm French of Moroccan origin and I'm proud of it, proud to show that I'm not a thug, proud to make my country joyous like that,” he said. “I love France. I am also happy for everyone. This country deserves that. It’s very difficult now, we have had a lot of problems with terrorism, but now we are so happy to be champions of the world.”
Lloris had become just the second French captain in history to lift the World Cup, but leaving the stadium it was Raphael Varane, winner of 16 titles by the age of just 25, who cradled the famous golden trophy in his arms like a newborn baby. If Kante’s prediction is correct, the illustrious old trophy may well mark the birth of a new period of French domination.
Qualifying for the 2020 European Championships starts in less than two months.
MOSCOW: For once, FIFA's influence shows the prettier side of the 'beautiful game' - FIFA don’t always cover themselves in glory, but every so often you find yourself doing something incredible and it is all down to world football’s governing body. In 2013, I had the chance to play football with Cafu in Brazil; in 2017, the Under-17 World Cup had me travelling around India for a month; and this week I played six-a-side on a makeshift pitch in the middle of Red Square. It was unforgettable.
There, in the centre of the Russian capital, flanked by the deep-red high walls of the Kremlin and the picture-perfect St Basil’s Cathedral, a group of around 60 journalists congregated and were divided into six squads. My team included Nigerians, Cameroonians, an Algerian, an Englishman, and an Irishman and was called Balalayka, which apparently is a guitar-like musical instrument popular in Russia.
If the team name was supposed to inspire harmony in a squad of 10 players all desperate to play as much of the 40 minutes as possible, it had mixed results. A howler of a goalkeeping error meant we were trailing within the opening five minutes, but summoning the spirit of Croatia, we fought back to dominate possession and carry the ball into dangerous areas even if, like England against Sweden, we didn’t force too many saves.
At half-time we were still losing, so our coach Amos decided to try to switch things up. Yet calls from the touchline are easy to ignore when they are delivered in a foreign language, as Saudi’s Argentine coach Juan Antonio Pizzi can attest. Requests to our cumbersome Cameroon striker went unheard while our skilful defender Olivier was deemed too good to come off, despite the result supposedly being secondary.
Frustration, however, gave way to elation, when we equalised with a shot from distance and with momentum now firmly with us, we attacked again. Collecting the ball on the left wing, I flicked it high across the pitch, where it was met beautifully on the volley by Olivier, justifying his inclusion like Angel Di Maria against France. The opposition goalkeeper was left with no chance. We would both score once more, but the lead — and ultimately the win — was ours.
As we all celebrated together after the final whistle, a crowd of curious onlookers watching on, the Africans broke into a chant and tribal dance. The match may have only been a friendly, but it was a friendly we had won. And, in the future, I can tell my grandkids I claimed an assist at the 2018 World Cup.
Another footnote in the voluminous history of Red Square.
MOSCOW - ENGLAND FANS FIND RUSSIA AND RUSSIAN FAR FROM REVOLTING: So it’s not coming home, but England and their fans most definitely are. And they are doing so unbowed and unbloodied — a situation that, such was the fear-mongering before the start of the World Cup, was almost unimaginable only a few months ago.
Prompted by the violent and bloody scenes at Euro 2016 two years earlier, “Prepare to DIE” was the warning plastered on the Daily Express website ahead of the tournament, alongside articles about “payback time” and the growing “threat of violence” between English hooligans and Russia’s notorious Ultras.
Consequently, the UK Foreign Office issued a warning and many supporters did not make the trip. Those who did were advised not to wear team colours. Only after England edged closer to ending 52 years of hurt did the plane loads of English that usually follow their team start to flood in. And what they discovered as they walked the streets of Moscow or Samara or myriad other cities in this vast country is that England fans were just as welcome as any other nationality.
Normal rules apply: show respect and you will be respected.
Not only has there been no violence this past month, but there has also been several examples of Russians actively supporting England. From the fan in Moscow who bought tickets to all Three Lions games because he supports Manchester United and wanted to see the likes of Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford, to the two teenagers in Samara supporting England because of their love for Russia-owned Chelsea.
“Do I support the England team more than Russia? Sure, why not?” said Igor Smodedov, an 18-year-old Russian wearing a plain red t-shirt having left his England shirt at home for their match with Sweden. “I should like Cahill because of Chelsea, but really my favourites are Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling,”
A couple of weeks earlier, inside the Volgograd Fan Fest when England were playing Tunisia, there were very few Three Lions shirts, yet when Kane headed the winning goal in added time, the park erupted in cheers. Among those supporting Gareth Southgate’s side were Russians, Ukrainians and Syrians.
And outside the Luzhniki Stadium on Wednesday night before England’s 2-1 defeat to Croatia, Russian fans posed for photos next to people with St George’s Crosses painted on their faces, before joining together for a few rounds of “It’s Coming Home”.
Of course, we now know it’s not, but English fans will at least return home with their own, more genuine, impression of the Russian people.
ST PETERSBURG - Unlike their teams, South American fans dominate the later stages of the tournament: The signs were there as soon as the day began. On the streets of Saint Petersburg, as people in Mexican sombreros or Colombia shirts or draped in Brazilian flags ate breakfast in the city’s myriad of eateries, it could hardly have felt less like the day France would meet Belgium in a World Cup semifinal. Necklaces of garlic were nowhere to be seen; Red Devils a rarity.
Much has been written about the South American teams this summer and their collective failure to live up to the usual lofty expectations. This year’s tournament is the first in history that hasn’t featured either Brazil, Argentina or Germany in the final four. Germany, the reigning world champions, of course did not even make it out of their group.
Yet while we can criticize the continent’s teams, when it comes to their fans, Latin America has provided the beating heart of Russia’s World Cup. If the Peruvians — all 80,000 of them if official figures are to be believed — owned the group stages, then the Brazilians have grown to dominate the knockout stages, appearing in number at almost every game that has taken place these past few weeks. The first of the two semifinals was no different.
During the walk to the Stadium on Tuesday for France’s 1-0 win, there were more yellow shirts than there were Les Bleus; more noise coming from those wearing Mexico green than Belgian red. Off the field at least, the Europeans simply could not compete.
The lack of substantial support for the two competing nations made for an oddly subdued atmosphere. France had only a small pocket of around 10,000 fans at the very most, while Belgium outnumbered them by perhaps a couple of thousand. The majority of the 65,000 crowd were thus neutrals: Russians, Brazilians, Colombians and whatever other nationality had expected their team to be playing.
At one stage, during a lull in an opening half full of them, a chant of “Rus-Shi-Ya” broke out from certain sections of the stadium, while on the way back to the city on the metro, there was no vocal French celebrating, but rather a swollen crowd jocularly chanting in Portuguese about Messi and Maradona.
Later, when taking the overnight train to Moscow, I failed to see a single Croatian or Englishman. Instead just that familiar canary yellow and the lilt of a Latin language. Neymar and Co. may not have got close to winning the World Cup, but their fans are en route to the final.
SAMARA - Here we go, the business end of the World Cup begins now: Today marks a month since I arrived in Russia, which not only means one week remains of the most unpredictable World Cup in history, but also that we are at that stage of the tournament whereby everyone who has been here since the start is feeling — and showing — the strain.
Aside from missing home comforts, our friends and family have been replaced with new, unpopular associates who follow us everywhere, namely chesty coughs, blotchy skin, mouth ulcers, and various other unpleasant side-effects of long days, interrupted nights, and a stressful, high-pressure environment.
With knock-out games taking place every day and the nightly threat of extra-time, extra work and extra-slim windows in which to get from stadiums to train stations, it makes for a heady concoction of adrenaline, anxiety and absolute mayhem. In the space of three days recently, I slept on a train, on a plane and in the back of a six-hour overnight taxi.
In the case of the taxi, it was more of a tiredness-induced state whereby I was awake while not really functioning. On a train or plane, a few hours of uncomfortable slumber can be sneaked in, but when your taxi driver thinks he is Sergey Sirotkin and wants to complete the 350-kilometer journey from Kazan to Samara in the quickest possible time, it makes for an unenjoyable journey. I lost count of the times I stirred from a groggy daze because of Sergey’s braking and my seatbelt saving me from getting up close and personal with the headrest in front.
The players too are feeling the impact, albeit in a different way. Relentless, high-intensity football has, for example, left Croatia looking dead on their feet. After their second 120-minute slog and penalty shootout in six days, they passed through the Mixed Zone — the area where journalists are forced to beg other wealthier, healthier and generally more beautiful human beings to stop and speak to them — looking like they had taken knock-out football too literally. Bruises and limps, bandages and swollen limbs.
So here we are, four games to go, three of them the most meaningful matches in these players’ careers; the kind of matches that can and will create national heroes. The other, the third-place play-off, is a mere distraction before the final, a match that neither team wants to play and is, for those slowly grinding themselves into the ground, about as welcome as a throbbing, stinging mouth ulcer.
Let’s do this.
SAMARA - Despite defeat, Brazil will be favorites in Qatar once again: I had a strange feeling wash over me the other day, and it wasn’t just because a combination of basic accommodation and no accommodation meant hot showers have become a novelty this week.
Standing outside the Kazan Arena before one of the most enchanting quarter-final matches in recent memory, amid the uproarious, confident Brazilians and quiet Belgians being cheekily asked if they will sell their semi-finals tickets pre-match, I had a premonition: the South Americans were homeward-bound.
In 2014, before Brazil’s 7-1 humiliation at the feet of Germany, I was walking into the Estádio Mineirão in Belo Horizonte when I passed an old couple wearing the famous canary-yellow shirts. Scribbled across the front of their jerseys in Portuguese were the words “To Mum” and “To Dad”. They were signed by David Luiz. I decided to speak to the captain’s parents briefly and, like most Brazilians that afternoon, they were predicting a home win.
That incident came flooding back to me pre-match in Kazan as I happened upon the family of Thiago Silva as they were interviewed by Globo TV atop a raised platform outside the stadium. They all looked relaxed and confident and, again, were predictably predicting to win. I am not overly superstitious, but I did not like the familiar familial feeling. I feared the worst for Tite and Co.
As a sportswriter with a love for World Cup nostalgia, I have always had a soft spot for Brazil. More recently, with a Brazilian wife and baby daughter myself, my affection for the country has strengthened. Yet — and perhaps as a Scot it is ingrained into me — I remain an overwhelming pessimist.
For those who follow Brazil, this is a rarity indeed. Among the memes and messages that I have been receiving this month from friends and extended family in Brazil, I was invited to take part in a predict-the-score sweep. All but one of the 17 people involved predicted a Brazil win. The one who did not was a three-year-old.
Having such optimism is normal when your country is a five-time world champion, but it does not mean it is unbreakable. The 7-1 is a deep wound that is yet to fully heal and after Brazil’s elimination on Friday, further doubts as to the Seleção’s place in the football stratosphere were unmasked.
Yet by the time Qatar 2022 comes around, much the same as this year, Brazil will be favourites once again. Only next time I will be sure to avoid meeting the parents of any of the team ahead of a knock-out tie. Perhaps I am superstitious after all.
KAZAN: Even if your team is not at the table, the World Cup is still a party: If you’re watching Uruguay against France today, keep an eye out for a Scottish flag. The man almost certain to be holding it is Mark McConville, also known as “Escoces Hincha Por Uruguay” (Scottish Guy Cheering for Uruguay). McConville, 45, from Glasgow, has been following La Celeste since 2010 when he bought tickets to the World Cup in South Africa only to see Scotland fail to qualify. After deciding upon the South Americans, he watched them reach the semi-finals, their best performance in 40 years, and the two have proved inseparable at World Cups ever since.
So today, inside the snappily-named Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, McConville will be found singing among his fellow Uruguay supporters but dressed in his trademark tartan hat and Lion Rampant flag-cum-sarong. Much as he was in Brazil four years ago when he ended up an internet sensation after being shown on TV celebrating wildly as England lost 2-1 to Uruguay in the group stages. Amid accusations of anti-Englishness, his parents felt obliged to come out and explain it was merely a coincedence.
Yet McConville is not the only devoted fan attending the quadrennial showpiece. There are thousands, all with their own stories.
There is the Peruvian who did not get tickets in the World Cup lottery so vowed to put on 24kg so he could re-apply, this time for the Special Access Tickets made available to obese spectators. There is the Argentinian who cycled to the World Cup in Brazil four years ago and forgot to stop afterwards, eventually landing in Moscow with his bike, a bushy beard and 90kg worth of baggage. And there are the two Englishmen who made a 20,000km round-trip in 2014 to watch Brazil playing at home, before returning to their own home practically the very next day. And having complete a similarly short trip to St Petersburg this week have vowed to return if England reach the final.
For these fans, the result is only half the occasion. And sometimes less. The mere opportunity to be at a World Cup, supporting their country surrounded by likeminded individuals who love this beautiful game we call football is the main attraction. The football and friendship and stories to tell the grandkids -- that's what it's really all about. If your country wins that just a bonus.
And for guys like Mark McConville, with his Scottish saltire tied to his Uruguay flag, it doesn’t even matter if it’s your country.
KAZAN: World Cup can show just how small the world is: We’ve all been there. You’re in a random place in a random city — let’s for talking’s sake say a souvenir stall in St Petersburg — and you run into someone you know. The standard response is “Oh, it’s a small world”, but the counter argument is that you’re obviously going to run into people you know when you are moving in similar circles.
Such is the case at a World Cup. If local tourism figures are to be trusted, there are more than a million visitors passing through Russia this month. With such high numbers and 11 host cities spread across a vast land mass, it might be assumed you could go the entire tournament without ever seeing the same person twice.
Yet that tends not to be the way these things work.
On the day of the opening match between Russia and Saudi, I saw a giant African man outside the Luzhniki Stadium caked head to two in red-white-blue body paint, posing for photos with fellow fans and enjoying the atmosphere. I saw him again before Russia’s game with Spain — only now his inner entrepreneur had cottoned on to a potential money-spinner and he was charging for the photos.
In Rostov-on-Don, my taxi driver told me in broken English about how he had driven an American more than 475km to Volgograd the previous day. It had taken him 12 hours in total and was the first time he had been offered such a fare. He had been well recompensed so was happy. When I relayed the story to a friend a few days later, he refused to believe me — because he had met said American man, who was actually a former colleague of us both, and was thus convinced I must have been trying to wind him up.
At Brazil versus Serbia, I got chatting to a yellow-shirted fan who was cradling a replica World Cup trophy like it was a premature infant. I snapped a photo of him and sent it to family in Brazil. When Brazil played Mexico a few days later, I received a WhatsApp message during the game. Who had they just seen on the TV hoisting aloft a golden statuette in the crowd? You guessed it. Same guy.
With the teams being whittled down and many tourists having already gone home, there is a good chance such situations will arise again. I hope to see the guy with the World Cup trophy once more -- if only to tell him he is now famous within the confines of my family.
SAINT PETERSBURG: If you are going to get stuck in any Russian city, it might as well be beautiful Saint Petersburg: Football fans in St Petersburg for today’s match between Sweden and Switzerland, last night spent the evening packing the cafes and restaurants of the city to watch Japan and Belgium. And why not? It was expected Belgium would walk their way into the last eight, but things are rarely so straightforward, especially in this World Cup of upsets.
Swedish chants rang out, Brazilians watched with vested interest to discover who they will face in the quarterfinals, Germans who expected to be playing in the city today sat quietly being gently ribbed by rival fans, and a Japanese youth dressed in full kimono hopped and screamed and showed how much the World Cup means to teams whom nobody expects too much.
As the game finished just after 11pm and Asia’s last-standing representative was eliminated, the fans streamed out on to the soaked streets. I joined them, walking to a nearby restaurant I had stumbled across last year while covering the Confederations Cup. (It’s called Pkhali Khinkali and is mentioned in this here travel story: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1129076/travel)
Slurping some Georgian soup called bozbash, the idea of getting home wasn’t particularly on my mind. A taxi had taken only 10 minutes to reach here and if the rain stayed off, a walk back might be quite pleasant given St Petersburg is not only one of the world’s most beautiful cities, but also bathed in almost perpetual daylight during the summer.
And so it was as I left the restaurant, saying goodbye to the two English fans I’d met earlier and who were on the hunt for tickets to the final, I started to wander homewards. First along the still-bustling Nevsky Prospect and later past the gigantic Hermitage Museum. Only when I reached the first of two bridges did I realise my error.
At 1.50am, the drawbridges in St Petersburg start to open to allow cargo vessels to pass through. With the Palace Bridge and the Troitsky Bridge both out of action to the public, there was no obvious way for me to get home. I was stuck.
Fortunately, there were many other people waiting by the side of the embankment — an arguing Mexican couple, a lairy Australian, amorous Russians — so, with the nearest bridge not due to open again until close to 5am, we settled down, enjoyed the views and exchanged World Cup stories.
We were, after all, all in the same boat.
MOSCOW: World Cup heroics gives Russians footballing fever: Russia have been sending people to space for more than 50 years, but on Sunday they sent their entire population into orbit. At least that’s how it felt under the lights of the Luzhniki Stadium as the World Cup hosts beat Spain. Four flawless penalties in the decisive shoot-out proved enough to eliminate the 2010 champions and book the hosts an unlikely place in the quarterfinals.
Sat in the stands, it was hard not to smile as the majority of the 78,000 spectators screamed and hooted and hugged and tooted. They posed for selfies and made videos with their smartphones and jumped and screamed and generally revelled in their rare glory. The players down on the pitch savoured the love too — it has been quite a turnaround this past two weeks.
Before Russia kicked off their campaign against Saudi Arabia last month, they could not even guarantee the support of their compatriots. Now, having confirmed their place in the last-eight, they can count among their newfound fans an eclectic bunch of international travellers that include five rowdy Americans with Russian flags, two reserved Chinese with painted faces, a group of Brazilians with half-and-half shirts, an Ecuadorean subtly sporting red-white-and-blue wristbands, and a lone Egyptian wearing a Russian-style fur hat.
The hosts, as is often the case at World Cups, are now everyone’s second team. Living in their country, it is all too obvious the sense of importance to the locals, the importance not only of providing prideful performances, but of ensuring the tournament retains that special feeling that only comes with the hosts still being involved. The match was not pretty, but Russia showed spirit and energy in abundance. Nobody could argue with the result.
If the thunderous roar inside Luzhniki seemed to last an age, the noise outside the stadium on the streets of Moscow was deafening. Women stood on top of cars, men on top of lampposts; 4x4s paraded down the main boulevards with flags hanging out the windows. The metro, accustomed to scenes of silence as people enter and exit the daily rat race, became one massive festive atmosphere with strangers exchanging grins and hugs and high-fives.
I've never seen Russians smile so much and I got the impression many Moscovites had never seen their countrymen smile so much either.
“My heart is doing crazy things just now,” said one fan, beaming. “My head too. I cannot believe it!”
SOCHI: World Cup pace makes last 15 days feel like 50 days: Friday marked the first football-free day since Saudi Arabia opened the World Cup on June 14 against hosts Russia. It may be only a little more than two weeks but it feels like at least a month ago such is the vast amount of happenings that have taken place since that unforgettable 5-0 defeat. Fifteen days going on 50.
In that time, 32 national teams have each played three group games, scoring 122 goals, including 16 in second-half stoppage time. With the help of VAR, we have seen 24 penalties — more than have been awarded in the entirety of any of the previous 32-team World Cups. We were also provided proof that to pass is to progress, with teams that qualified having completed an average of 21 per cent more passes than eliminated teams.
In terms of the Arab sides, we’ve watched Egypt’s Essam El-Hadary crowned the oldest player to ever play at the Fifa showpiece and Mo Salah score the Pharaohs first goal from open play since 1934. We witnessed Tunisia get their first World Cup win since 1978 and Saudi their first since 1994. Morocco, the best of the four, went home with just a single point as Africa will be without a representative in the last 16 for the first time in 36 years.
Meanwhile, I’ve caught five overnight trains, travelled 5,555km and spent close to 77 hours on a railroad. I’ve rented nine different apartments in five different cities and slept in single beds, double beds, couches, trains, and even, briefly, some bedding on a floor in Volgograd. I’ve met people from all 32 countries and spotted fans from what feels like another 32 that didn’t qualify, such as Lebanon, Ethiopia, El Salvador, Haiti, Scotland, China, Bhutan and Bahrain.
And while this was the first day of no football, it was by no means a day with no commitments. Uruguay’s Oscar Tabarez and Luis Suarez and Portugal’s Fernando Santos and Adrien Silva both spoke with media inside Sochi’s Fisht Stadium ahead of their Round of 16 clash, while an hour up the road, at the Brazilian team’s training base, Casemiro also took questions.
With 16 more days to go, there will be plenty more to say and see, plenty more penalties to sky or score, and plenty more kilometres to wrack up in the process of trying to catch it all as it happens. Fifteen days going on 50? Soon enough it'll feel like four weeks going on four months.
SOCHI, Planes, trains and automobiles: Russian airlines do not have the best reputations in the aviation industry. Back in the 1970s, Aeroflot would regularly experience upwards of 20 crashes per year, an enormous number compared to other countries. By the 1990s, the situation in the country was so bad the International Air Transport Association advised against all air travel in the Soviet Union, instead recommending train travel.
Nowadays, local airlines are much improved with Aeroflot leading the way — it even has a sponsorship deal with Manchester United. It is just as well given the number of tourists in the country for the World Cup and the vast distances between host cities. Train travel can provide a fantastic window into Russian culture, but it is also time consuming and when you have places to be on specific days, the idea of a 25-hour train sometimes just doesn’t work.
I took my first domestic flight of the tournament earlier today, departing Moscow for the Black Sea resort of Sochi, which will host the Round of 16 match between Uruguay and Portugal. I had been warned by a lovely Saudi Arabian family to expect the worst at the airport and they were not wrong.
It felt like half of Moscow was flying from Domodedevo. The automatic revolving door was like something out of a comedy sketch, stopping and starting and taking an age to move a couple of inches. Inside, the massive departures hall was devoid of big check-in boards and with no gate number printed on my ticket, it all made for an unnecessarily uncomfortable afternoon.
With some teams underperforming (Hallo Die Mannschaft!) and others exceeding expectations (Kunichiwa Japan!) many fans and media here have had to switch plans, cancelling trains, extending hotel stays, etc. I was no different and found myself this morning trying to book a last-minute flight to cover the tie between Brazil and Mexico.
My Airbnb host helped me and after an hour of searching in Russian we finally found some surprisingly cheap, non-refundable flights to Saransk. All the timings worked perfectly, so I gave him my credit card and he rapidly entered the details. Success.
It was only afterwards did I double-check the tournament schedule, realising with dread that the match is not in Saransk, but rather Samara. It did not take me long to realise why the flights were so cheap. With the city having already hosted its last match of the tournament, nobody here for the World Cup is going to Saransk.
Well, nobody except me. D'oh.
MOSCOW, New vantage points way to VAR: Regardless of whether it is Watford, Al-Wasl or the World Cup, covering football matches is always a privilege. Usually, as media, we are positioned close to the halfway line, high up in the stands. Depending on the profile of the game, we may have a television providing replays and access to desks and wifi and up-to-the-minute statistics.
Sometimes, however, when the demand is too high for the capacity of the media seats, we are provided a place to sit and nothing else. Some people complain that they cannot work properly without access to replays and plug sockets and a place to rest their laptop. They would have a point. Others accept it and make the best of what they are given.
Brazil’s match against Serbia on Tuesday night was oversubscribed, but after a scrimmage for tickets, I managed to snare one. My seat didn’t have any of the facilities a journalist usually requires to file a match report, but it was on the edge of the penalty box almost as close to the field as you can get. And it was brilliant. Sitting in the second row at the Spartak Arena, I was so close to the action that the sprinklers at half-time sprayed my laptop with mist.
It’s rare for us to get to sit so close to the pitch; close enough to hear their shouts and the thump of tackles. I watched life-size Gabriel Jesus laughing with life-size Philippe Coutinho after an early chance came to nothing. I noted the speed with which life-size Neymar’s feet move when he is running at full pace and I noted the speed with which life-size Neymar rolls when he goes to ground. I clocked the sinewy legs of life-size Fagner and the way Paulinho and Willian look not at the ball while defending but rather at their opponent’s face.
It was all greatly beneficial in terms of proving a better insight into the beautiful game. Yet I’m glad I was not writing a match report. I found it particularly difficult to ascertain how close an attack at the opposite end of the pitch was to the goal, and when the match finished, I had the erroneous impression Neymar had spurned at least two great scoring chances from close range. I also completely missed two of Vladimir Stojkovic’s saves, a foul by Nemanja Matic and could barely see Thiago Silva connect with his headed goal.
The need for a TV replay is undoubtedly essential at times. VAR, despite its problems, is routinely proving this.
VOLGOGRAD, Russian hospitality an early winner at this World Cup: There are a few things you can be sure of at a World Cup: South American fans singing on the streets until six in the morning, England fans getting overexcited after seeing their side beat a minnow, and accommodation being as hard to find inside the host country as my beloved Scottish national team.
The lack of affordable accommodation options is always a problem at football tournaments. But it forces you to step outside your comfort zone. For some, that might mean simply sleeping in a single bed rather than a double. For others it might mean a hammock on a boat rather than someone’s spare room.
In Russia, I’ve been staying mostly with locals. Sometimes that means sneaking in quietly after a game in order not to wake my hosts, other times it means prolonged exchanges while standing in the doorway of the bathroom using Google Translate to ask how to get hot water.
In Volgograd, however, I immediately knew this was going to be different. I was only staying with Konstantin for one night, but he met me at the train station wearing a Sigur Ros T-shirt, a smile as omnipresent as the ink covering his arms, and a bottle of Irn-Bru. “It is Scottish drink, right?” he asked laughing.
After introducing me to his wife and later his son, we sat at their kitchen table and talked about everything from Icelandic football and Danish music to cucumbers, crazy babushkas and an age-old Russian idiom about a wolf, a forest and work that is not pressing.
The night before Nigeria were due to face Iceland, tea and chocolates were served and when I woke up on the day of the match fresh coffee and cake was awaiting me. Two bowls of steaming hot borsch followed. If I return home overweight after this World Cup, it will be in large part because of the Russian hospitality of Kostya and Olga.
Before I left, they handed me a load of stickers, postcards, fridge magnets, and a bag of fruits. “You are a very good guest because you never say no to our food,” said Kostya. “This is important Russian tradition.”
We swapped contact details and said our goodbyes - he in perfect English, me in terrible Russian. It had only been a couple of days, but it felt like we had been friends for years. He lifted his shirt to show another tattoo. It read: “In my heart”.
VOLGOGRAD, Russian smiles shattering 'stony stereotypes': There is a belief in Russian culture that laughing for no reason is a sign of stupidity. The consequence has traditionally meant a series of stern and unsmiling faces in the streets and on public transport, so with an estimated 1.5 million tourists flooding the country to attend the World Cup, FIFA and two major Russian rail companies organized smiling lessons for staff.
When I visited Saint Petersburg last year for the Confederations Cup, I noted the lack of animation on the subway lines, in the shops, and in and around the stadiums. Apart from the volunteers with their big foam fingers high-fiving anyone who passed, the majority of the population were quiet, reserved and largely kept themselves to themselves. If approached, they would be receptive, helping however they could, but they never actively offered assistance.
Twelve months on and there has been a marked change. Russians are now well aware of the cold, negative perceptions of them outside their motherland and are revelling in the opportunity to shatter the stereotypes; to show the real side of their country and its people. Now, they are being proactive. Their figurative frowns have gone.
I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been approached at a metro station or on the street by a local asking if I need help (which I invariably do). Maybe it’s because my itinerary has yet to take me north of Moscow, but it also seems they are a lot more willing to speak English — after I have exhausted my very limited Russian, of course.
In the more southern cities of Rostov-on-Don and Volgograd, where perhaps the sight of a fumbling foreigner is not so common, phrases such as “privyet” (hello) and “spasibo” (thank you) are greeted with giggles. Yet so long as their level of English is sufficient, without exception the questions soon come: “Where are you from? What do you think of Russia? You like?”
It’s hard not to when the welcome is so warm. In a small bohemian cafe not far from the monolithic Motherland Calls memorial, it's possible to find the perfect example of Russia's newfound warmth and openness.
Behind the counter, in English, a sign reads: “Smile! You’re in Volgograd”.
VOLGOGRAD, Wartime remembrance gives some much-needed perspective: In Russia, June 22 is known as the “Day of Sorrow” and marks the moment Nazi Germans invaded the former Soviet Republic. It is recognized each year as a chance to remember those who lost their lives protecting their country in what we refer to as World War II and Russians refer to as the Great Patriotic War.
It is estimated around 35,000 people died in Stalingrad — now Volgograd — and on the eve of this year’s commemorations, I was invited to a special performance at the foot of the city’s famous The Motherland Calls! statue. You’ve likely seen images of the statue in the media — a massive grey-stone figure of a woman with a sword in one hand and beckoning you with her other. When it was finished in 1967 it was the tallest statue in the world. It remains the tallest in Europe.
On Thursday night, I stood alongside Mexicans and Uruguayans, Icelanders and even a few Nigerians as what seemed like thousands of Russians marched up a winding pathway with remembrance candles in their hands. The pathway is peppered with soldiers’ graves and to get there they had to pass through a cylindrical building that carries an eternal flame and the names of more than 7,500 people who lost their lives during the battles in Stalingrad.
An ensemble of musicians sang as videos of the war were projected onto a wall and clever lighting had the monolithic statue appear first to wear a blue dress, then be involved in a battle with chains and ropes, then be struck by lightning, turn to ice and finally thaw to red.
None of us watching had seen anything like it and although we didn’t understand any of what was being said (my Russian friend explained that it was mainly words of commemoration and remembrance) it was hard not to be impressed.
The event was understandably sombre and nostalgic, a far cry from what those same fans from Nigeria and Iceland will be a part of today inside the Volgograd Arena, which sits majestically in the statue's shadow and was on Thursday lit up in the colours of the Russian flag. Both countries still have a real chance of progressing to the knockout stages of the World Cup, but with Croatia having won their two games so far, they can’t both qualify.
With that in mind, it never hurts to retain perspective.
ROSTOV-ON-DON, Syrians join the festival atmosphere in Russia ... for England?: Outside the FIFA Fan Fest, three men wrapped in Syrian flags and scarves hoisted aloft the World Cup trophy and sang words that were not only indecipherable through warbling jubilation but also indecipherable because they were a mixture of two languages: Arabic and Russian.
The three men, it would turn out, are all residents of Rostov-on-Don, this quiet and tranquil city that boasts a picturesque river, a ‘touching zoo’, and a football stadium that seats 45,000 spectators. Kheder Arous, the chattier of the three men, explained that he and his friend Ziad Abdullah are students from Syria while their other pal is a Rostov native.
England had just beaten Tunisia 2-1 but the national team colours of neither side were easy to spot. Instead, a smorgasbord of national shirts from Uruguay to Switzerland, Mexico to Iceland were on show. Given Kheder and Ziad were draped in Syrian flags and speaking Arabic, I presumed they were supporting their brothers from the Middle East and North Africa. I was wrong.
“Tunisia? No. I was supporting England,” Kheder said smiling as a mass of sweating fans dressed in yellow and green swayed past singing in Portuguese about Pelé and his thousand goals. “Many of us do. It’s because of the Premier League. I support Man United, but players like Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli, Rashford, Kane… we know them all so we show our support.”
Naturally, they also all support Russia, the country that has provided them such a warm welcome since leaving their war-torn home. While Ziad is keen to return when he finishes his Masters in Chemistry, Kheder is not so sold on the idea. “I love life and like to live. There it is difficult. Plus I have another passport, so I can stay here forever if I want.”
As his group was swallowed up by fans of other nations, the chanting and jumping and posing with the famous golden statuette started all over again. They both looked delighted — it is presumably not every day they get to celebrate with tourists from around the world. For a moment I tried to imagine the scene had Syria won their playoff matches against Australia last year. My daydream did not last long. I am handed a phone.
“Please,” came the voice. “Take photo. World Cup”
ST PETERSBURG: The dateline of this blog may read St Petersburg, but I might actually be closer to Moscow. A more exact dateline would probably be ‘IN TRANSIT’.
Since the World Cup kicked off, I’ve yet to sleep in a bed. And have no plans to do so again until at least tomorrow night. While Russia is a gargantuan country, one of the most praiseworthy elements of its World Cup so far is the free travel provided by the host country. Month-long tournaments can be expensive affairs for the hordes of travelling fans, many of whom save for years to make the pilgrimage.
In Brazil four years ago, where domestic flights were essential, I ended up boarding 29 planes in 28 days. It was hectic and hassle and highly time-consuming, but it was the only way to attend the games I needed to attend. Many fans hoping to follow their team throughout instead chose to base themselves in one city to save the expense of much-inflated flight prices.
Here in Russia, it’s a different story. Not only do matchday ticket-holders enjoy free travel on the local metro, tram and bus systems, but they can also enjoy free train travel between host cities. I’ve been shuttling up and down the 215km track between Moscow and St Petersburg these past couple of nights, but will tonight head south, making the 1000km trip to Rostov-on-Don, where Saudi Arabia will play their second group game against Uruguay.
While train travel provides a cheaper alternative to flying, it can obviously mean long, long journeys. My train from Volgograd to Moscow next month will take 24.5 hours, but with bunkbeds and wifi and a cafe serving hot food, for those without Russian dispatches to write, the train offers a perfect setting to relax and zone out for a few hours, complete with postcard views out the window.
With the small compartments sleeping four to a cabin, there is also a great chance to meet other people enjoying a World Cup adventure. On Thursday night, I shared a cabin with a 60-year-old Nicaraguan woman who said she is travelling alone and has tickets for four games. A resident of Tampa, in Florida, she was on route to St Petersburg to watch Iran versus Morocco..
“I don’t really understand the rules,” she said. “But I just love the atmosphere.”
MOSCOW: If love conquers all, language must surely threaten to do the opposite: it can ruin the best laid plans, get you in unnecessary trouble, and — in Russia at least — almost always results in you heading the wrong way on public transport.
Brazil 2014 posed problems for non-Portuguese speakers, but at least some of the words appeared similar: Maracana is Maracanã, taxi is still taxi, hotel is hotel. Here, the words appear in Cyrillic, so ‘STOP’ looks more like ‘CTON’. With some of the letters the same, it lures you into a false sense of security; you think you can transliterate and understand more than you do.
A veteran World Cup goer who I was speaking to the other day said this summer is proving more difficult than the 2002 tournament in Japan and Korea. At least there, you knew you had no idea what anything said so were always on guard. Here, if not careful, you can become complacent in your orienteering and end up totally lost — and with nobody to ask for help.
Another issue is that many Russian landmarks seem to have various different names. When I reserved a train ticket through FIFA’s free ride programme, the departure station in Moscow was marked as Passazhirskaya Station. When the official ticket arrived in my inbox, the point of departure was marked as Oktiabrskaia Station.
I went with the name on the ticket and found Oktiabrskaia station easy enough through Google Maps. On arrival, however, I quickly discovered there is no railway there, only a metro — and it certainly did not go as far as Saint Petersburg. I searched again, this time for Passazhirskaya only to find it is located on the other side of the city.
A random online forum cleared up the confusion: “Oktiabrskaia also goes by the names Passazhirskaya and Kazansky and Yaroslavsky . However, it most commonly known as Leningradsky Station…”
Yup, cleared up.
With my departure time fast approaching, the metro was no longer an option so I tried calling an Uber, which redirected me to the Russian equivalent Gett. With the geolocation on my phone playing up in Russia (for some unknown reason) the taxi did not know where to pick me up. After a few frustrating conversations with random people on the street, I eventually sussed out my location and ‘got a Gett’.
The Google Maps issue was an example of how phone apps can’t be relied on as they are at home. Another? Saturday’s match between Argentina and Iceland in Moscow was held at Spartak Stadium. If you, however, entered “Spartak Stadium” into Google Maps to calculate the quickest way to get there, it would direct you towards Spartak Stadium in northeastern Moscow. Instead, to reach the game, you needed to enter Otkritie Arena, which would then provide directions to the newly-rebranded Spartak Stadium, situated in northwestern Mocow. “Uma confusão”, as they would say in Brazil.
It has only been a few days since the opening match, but the fact I have yet to miss a train or game is amazing. Now I am on a 20-hour train from Moscow to Rostov-on-Don, which is 1,300km away from Rostov — which naturally is the destination that was marked on my ticket.
MOSCOW: If, as the saying goes, time moves slowly in a Russian winter, it moves at the speed of a Maglev train the week before a World Cup. It is seven days since I touched down in Moscow, yet it feels more like one very long, sleep-deprived 24-hours. Perhaps it is because the sun sets after 9pm and the sky is white again before 4am. Or maybe it is because with more than 2,000 international media having descended on the country, there is news breaking with all the regularity of a drummer in an Arabic marching band.
This is the third World Cup I have had the privilege to cover and the thrill never wears off. Not only because it is elite international football in a country that is rolling out its red carpet for visitors, but there are few, if any, events in the world that bring together so many nationalities.
Outside the Luzhniki Stadium ahead of the first match between Saudi Arabia and Russia, you could walk for five minutes and pass swarms of fans from Mexico and Haiti, Peru and Ethiopia, Brazil and Nicaragua. There were fake sheikhs, Lionel Messi doppelgängers and a man dressed as Father Christmas. There was a gargantuan African head-to-toe in red, white and blue body-paint.
Yet it is not necessarily always the fun-filled, five-week festival your friends and family tend to think. It can be a highly pressurised environment with a lot of stress and sleepless nights. Especially when, on the eve of the opening game, in a taxi on the way to the FIFA Congress, with news filtering through that Spain’s Julen Lopetegui was about to be fired and a decision on who would win hosting rights for the 2026 World Cup just hours away ... the motherboard of my laptop decided to explode.
The timing could not have been worse. No computer means lost articles means frustrated bosses means no future assignments means a potential early flight home. With five weeks of features lined up and a travel itinerary that involves changing cities every other day, I feared the worst.
Fortunately, I found a small shop in Moscow with staff that speak good English. Not only will they replace the motherboard, they have given me a spare laptop — fitted with my own hard-drive — to use for the few days it will take for the motherboard to arrive. They have been an absolute Godsend without whom I’d have been totally lost. Instead now I am just lost on the Moscow Metro, but that is for another day…