The last month has been a blur, Russia has delivered an epic World Cup and England battled through to the semi final, which no one expected. I’ve tried to condense it down into one post, but inevitably I will have missed parts out. Thanks to everyone who has made the past month one to remember.
Following England from Volgograd I switched from bicycle to car for a 3 day road trip up the Volga river. Cedric was the driver, having come by car from his home in Yorkshire.
We had a quick stop off in Saransk to check out the smallest host city of the World Cup, where even the locals are surprised to be involved.
The next day we arrived in Nizny Novgorod, the venue for England’s 2nd match of the tournament against Panama, considered by many to be Russia’s 3rd city after Moscow and St. Petersburg. After the immense amount of flies in Volgograd the heat of Nizny didn’t seem too bad. The travelling England contingent was much more vocal here, with a large presence camped out on the main bar street in the city.
Nizny delivered a strong performance from England, with the most goals scored by an England team in a World Cup match. We looked more like a team than in any other tournament I’ve watched.
The World Cup party was truly on, after the last-minute relief of the 2-1 vs. Tunisia to sheer disbelief that this was actually England scoring 6 goals in front of us.
The next day with sore heads, hoarse voices and hope that football was coming home, we went our separate ways, (Josh off to Kazan, Matt flying home, Cedric driving to Moscow).
I waited for my 3am train to Moscow in a bar off the main street to avoid the crowds and recover a bit. Then, some locals realised I was English and they immediately offered me shots of vodka and some food, despite my fragile condition I couldn’t turn them down.
They dragged some other Russians in to talk, as their English was not so good and I was soon drinking with a big group. I almost forgot I had left all my bags in the fanzone’s luggage area, and at midnight I set off with my new friends to retrieve everything. The door was locked and the lights were off when we arrived, fortunately I had Yevgeny, Max and Vladimir with me and they managed to persuade a policeman to call in the guy with the key.
To celebrate we went to Max’s nearby flat and drank samogonka or homemade vodka outside until around 2am when I had to set off to the train station. We said our goodbyes and off I went, laden down with a bottle of the potent samogonka.
At the station I had about 10 minutes to go through the airport style security (all security has been notched up for the World Cup) and find my train, I was surprised to find the 3 Russians running in to help me, they had driven down to make sure I made it on time. They carried the bags and led me to the train while I rolled the bike, more importantly they persuaded the unhappy carriage stewardess to let my bike on. Amazing hospitality from the Russians once more!
I spent the next week in Moscow, with Eugene a host from couch surfing who generously was happy for me to stay for the rest of the tournament. A few days recovering and sightseeing followed before meeting up with some more England fans. England losing to Belgium in Kaliningrad meant the next match would be played in Moscow, rather than a 20 hour train ride away in Rostov, and that England were placed in the (theoretically at least) easier side of the draw. This meant Simon, Luke, Angus and me cheered on as Rashford purposely (allegedly) scuffed his chance wide. The result a one nil Belgium win, and a last 16 date with Colombia in the Spartak Stadium, Moscow.
The atmosphere in Moscow, especially on the Nicolskaya street just off Red Square, was amazing. Each night fans from around the world and loads of locals gathered to sing and dance in the street. Setting up an England flag brought a lot of attention as there were only a few of us around.
The day Russia beat Spain in the quarter-final brought Moscow to a stand still, cars driving around honking and people flooding the centre to celebrate the shocking win of the unfancied Russian team against the 2010 champions. I got a free ticket from my brother, Charlie, for this match and was expecting like most of the crowd to see the Spanish sweep the plucky Russian aside. The noise inside the Luzhniki was deafening, as the Russians went through after a penalty shootout.
After this match I met up with Frankie, last seen wandering around the streets of Nizny, and met his mates, Bob and Matt, known as ‘The Old Boys’. They had set up camp in a bar on the main Nicolskaya Street they’d christened Bar 200, based on the price of a Piva/Beer.
My brother Charlie, not normally a football fan, had flown out taking advantage of the Fan ID to visit Russia as a tourist and we went to a fans match in the temporary Red Square football pitch.
These matches have been played in each city England’s been too, organised by George Smith. It’s normally a group of England fans against fans of the local football club.
On this occasion in the shadow of the Kremlin, the Russians brought in a few ringers; 3 international women’s players, a current Russian premier league player and some pro ice hockey players as well. Final score 16 – 1 to Russia.
Throughout my time in Russia friendships forged around football and alcohol were a recurring theme, with English, Russians and fans from everywhere and anywhere. I met Alex, a Russian fan of the England team in Volgograd, and again in Ninzy, amazingly he managed to find me a ticket for the Colombia match, via his American friend Steve-o. I met them for vodka and piva before the match. I hadn’t planned to go to any more matches, having arrived in Russia with tickets for the group stages only, but since football was coming home and I was already in Russia it would be a missed opportunity not to go to more matches.
Match day arrived with many more England fans around, gathering in Nicolskaya before heading out to the suburbs. Colombia’s tactics were similar to those of Tunisia and Panama, trying to prevent England from playing but getting away with it in most cases. England led through a penalty, and looked to be going through, until in very English way we conceded in the 93rd minute. Extra time and penalties followed, and in a very Un-English way we won a penalty shoot out. The euphoria and release of nervous energy at finally winning in a shootout was immense.
After this my weeks of drinking and late nights caught up with me and dose of man flu set in, I lay low at Eugenes, only venturing out to find tickets for the next match, managing to find some sad-looking Colombian fans wandering around Moscow. For this match I took a 15 hour train ride to Samara.
In Samara I was reunited with Josh who had sat out the Colombia match to enjoy the famous pancakes found in the riverside city of Nizny Novgorod. A planned stay with a local Russian fell through so we found ourselves on the floor of Dave and Frankie’s Airbnb, conveniently located near the spaceship-esque stadium.
waiting for the bus before England vs. Sweden
England were building momentum, always crucial in a tournament, and they swept aside a one-dimensional Swedish team, with Jordan Pickford vital in making some amazing saves. This was almost unbelievable stuff now, England were in a World Cup semi final and I was there to witness it.
A few more days in Samara then it was back on the train to Moscow. Now that we were here, with England in a World Cup semi final for the first time in our lives we had to try to get tickets. Josh and I spent hours on the FIFA website, trawling Twitter and Facebook to try and get our hands on some. There were lots available online from re-sellers but at a big markup. Amazingly Josh managed to track down some in St. Petersburg for only $10 above face value, and fortunately Charlie now in tourist mode was in St. Petersburg. Perfect. Charlie got sent the money, collected the tickets and planned to be back in Moscow on the day of the match, due to collect his own ticket from a seller there.
Once we arrived back to Eugene’s in Moscow at 5am, after another long train journey, on the day of the match, I decided to check my phone following a quick snooze. I had about 20 messages from Charlie. There were no trains or planes from St. Petersburg to Moscow so he was hiring a car. His ETA was around 9pm which was the exact time of kick off. He was holding the tickets for me, Josh and Matt who had flown back out for the big occasion, this was not ideal. Having worked out the best approach for Charlie; driving to the North of Moscow, leaving the car and taking a metro across the city to the Stadium there was nothing to do but wait and see if he made it. We went to find the England fans and pre-drown our sorrow about missing the match.
This made the build up to this huge match even more nerve-wracking. Amazingly, Charlie and his heavy foot arrived to the Stadium at 8:50pm, was quickly mobbed by 3 very relieved England fans, and we ran in and found our place behind the England goal just as they kicked off.
For 63 glorious minutes we were on our way to the World Cup Final. Trippier’s free kick in the 5th minute sending the bolstered English ranks in to delirium. A few good chances in the first half led to a confident mood at half time, just need to convert some of these chances and it’s job done. Then Croatia came out after half time and took control of the match, scored to take it to extra time and scored again to break English hearts. Football is coming home, just not yet.
We stayed to sing and show our support to the players who like us were clearly agonised at having come so close to the final.
From here it was back to Bar 200, peace and quiet set back from the madness of Nicolskaya. Charlie set off to drive to his airport hotel, before having to make the long drive back to St. Petersburg later that morning, and the Josh and Matt provided some musical backing to see England’s participation in the World Cup out in dubious style.
However the show must go on and although some England fans made the trip up to St. Petersburg for the 3rd place playoff many more were either heading directly home, or staying around Moscow for the final.
The final lived up to the rest of the tournament, high scoring, amazing goals, controversy. The best team won on the day, well done to France. Max, my first host in Russia, had come up to Moscow to be in the fanzone for the final and we met up on Nicolskaya with the promise of a gift from Russia with love. His mum had made me a Harry Kane t-shirt which I wore with pride for the rest of the night.
This and the green bum bag (a gift from another Max – my host in Volgograd) are great examples of the generosity experienced and the friendships made in Russia in the last month, something that is replicated with loads of the England fans I talk to.
Alex, Steve-O, Dave and Diana completed our diminished party for the final night on Nicolskaya.