When I first told friends and family of my plan to head to Russia for the group stages of the World Cup, travelling around five of the host cities, it’s fair to say reaction was mixed. When I say mixed it varied from heart felt pleas of ‘I don’t want you to go’ to the more practical if sombre advice of my dad to ‘ensure you write your will before you go just in case, WH Smith do a DIY kit for about 20 quid.’
As it turned out the dire predictions of violence rampant in the British media during the build-up turned out to be as wrong as Cristiano Ronaldo’s goatee. From the minute we headed down to Red Square on our first morning it was clear the atmosphere in Russia was that of a world party where the Russian people wanted to make visitors feel welcome and be as helpful as possible (Well most of them anyway - hello ticket lady at the Kremlin museum).
Perhaps never before has so much polyester gathered in one place as fans in their team’s shirt went on a mission to take selfies with counterparts from all other 31 participating nations.
Spotting a group of Mexican lads all wearing Jorge Campos replica goalkeeper jerseys from USA ‘94 - a mess of hot pink, fluorescent yellow and acid green he is said to have designed himself - I plucked up all of my courage in getting my girlfriend to ask them if they’d have their picture taken with me.
Our first game was at Spartak Stadium where we saw Senegal versus Poland. The Polish fans were in good voice on the metro cleverly reworking 2 Unlimited’s 'No Limit' in praise of Lewandowski. We found out over the course of the half hour journey that most of the Poland squad’s names can be grafted onto this song. There really was 'No Limit' to how many times they wanted to sing it.
The metro system in Moscow is an absolute wonder. First opened in the 1930s with help from London Underground construction engineers, it now handles close to seven million passengers a day. The stations are like works of art completely unspoiled by any adverts. Imagine the interchange at Finsbury Park transformed into the fanciest Art Deco hotel lobby you have ever seen and you’re still not close.
For the duration of the World Cup passengers could watch all the action happening live at one game as they travelled to or from another. We had the surreal experience of being deep underground as Russia blitzed Egypt with three goals at the start of the second half. There was a slight delay on our screen at the rear of the train, presumably due to the proximity of the WIFI, meaning the carriage ahead would explode into scenes of celebration while we now waited knowingly for the cutback to reach its target.
Symbols of the Soviet Union are still visible everywhere in Moscow. The vast Luzhniki Stadium which will host the final has a huge concrete statue of Lenin, the Bolshevik revolutionary leader, guarding its entrance. Impressive as the great man looks, there is a certain incongruity seeing him surrounded by the logos of FIFA’s commercial partners Budweiser, Coke and Visa.
Before travelling to the national stadium to see Portugal play Morocco we had gone to the mausoleum where his body has been on display to the public since 1924. A truly strange experience, and one that as Harry Kane added a sixth against Panama, led me to wonder whether Gareth Southgate would receive a similar honour one day in the grounds of Wembley were England to go all the way in Russia (provided Wembley hasn’t been sold off by then that is).
Colombia versus Poland in Kazan is one of the best experiences I’ve had watching football. 30,000 Colombians made the trip seemingly oblivious to the scare stories that kept many European fans away.
Our seats were at pitch level behind the goal and within a few metres of where ‘FIFA Legend’ Rene Higuita was interviewed prior to kick off. Another one ticked off for me in 90s World Cup goalkeeping nostalgia bingo. As Colombia put a moribund Poland to the sword I finally got to see first-hand why so many words have been written about the South Americans love of football.
On the flight over for this game I found myself sitting next to a very distinguished looking chap who turned out to be FIFAs technical director. To be clear we were in the cheap seats on Russia’s version of Ryanair so FIFA has clearly made some positive changes to its expenses policy (apparently they only fly business class if it’s over three hours).
He was absolutely fascinating to listen to and spoke English, his second (or probably fourth language) so well I felt deeply inadequate. He had been integral to the implementation of VAR and was extremely satisfied with how it was going, but pointed out it only takes one bad decision for public opinion to shift…the Portugal Iran VARce the following evening illustrated his point perfectly. I couldn’t resist asking him why the World Cup was going to Qatar in four years and if there was hope of it being moved. Dealing with this question with all the skill of a top statesman he confirmed the dates are set and Qatar 2022 will definitely be happening...boo.
From sun drenched Kazan we took an old overnight train to Nizhny Novgorod complete with fold out beds and a Russian father and daughter combo for cabin-mates. Thankfully the daughter spoke Ang-leas-kee sufficiently well to spare me going down the road of naming random Russian footballers in lieu of small talk, Roman Pavlyuchenko?
Costa Rica versus Switzerland while on paper not a cracker was a really good game of football with some lovely goals, multiple Mexican waves and an homage to a Scorpions concert where the largely Russian crowd lit up the beautiful new stadium with the torch function on their IPhones - lighters and smoking are strictly prohibited at the FIFA World Cup.
The culmination of our trip was supposed to be a crunch tie between England and Belgium in Kaliningrad. Following each of the teams taking maximum points from their first two matches however it was clear both sides were going to rotate their squads. Or as some even suggested try not to win.
The game was no better in person than I’m sure it was on TV and the official England section of the crowd being too cool for school adopted a ‘thou shall not pass’ approach to the Mexican wave the local fans attempted to get going. I could understand the boos that came as the ball was recycled in seemingly endless triangles between full back, centre back and centre midfielder. These weren’t the ‘unbelievable emotions’ the very enthusiastic volunteer wished for us as they directed us to our seats at the start of the game, but it’s the World Cup so we enjoyed it nonetheless.
It was time to fly home via Moscow but not before watching Russia shock the world by dumping out Spain on penalties in a pub. Turns out Russian people are just like everyone else, when their team wins they rush to their cars, affix a flag or five and drive up and down beeping their horn in the age-old fashion, and well they might.
Whatever happens from here Russia 2018 exceeded all my expectations both on and off the pitch and hopefully the good feeling engendered between Russia and the rest of the world this past month will stick around a fair bit longer.
Ewan Flynn is the author of ‘We Are Sunday League’ published by Pitch Publishing.