Last year’s World Cup in Russia was a wonderful event. It may have surprised a lot of onlookers, but those who ventured to the largest country on the planet returned home with glowing testimony. The cynical still refused to accept that Russia could so wonderfully organise the event, endeavouring to pour scorn on the positives with suggestions it was merely an elaborate stunt!
I have been very fortunate in life, to travel extensively and indulge my passion for football at the same time. Despite the constant lure of Italy that has maybe accounted for around 50 trips alone, June 2018 and the Russia World Cup just happened to be my fifth World Cup and my 50th country! I had always resolved to go to Russia for the tournament, but I only really had eyes for the magnificent city of St Petersburg. Good fortune struck me again a year before the competition when I was in Kutaisi, Georgia, where something very special with a lady from St Petersburg started! One final element needed to fit into place, and that was a desire for games in the second city of Russia to be free of English involvement. I appreciate that they do not cause as much trouble these days, but I am still traumatised by the way the atmosphere in Kyoto, Japan changed in the second week of our time there when England fans arrived en masse. There was also a big threat from the Russian hooligans, who had been smacking their lips together at the prospect of getting into a fight with the English. Thankfully that never occurred, and indeed some significant behind the scenes lobbying must have taken place, as this was a wonderfully trouble free tournament.
When the draw was made it was immediately St Petersburg a go, go for me as the fixtures showed real party atmosphere potential with both Brazil and Argentina coming to town. They were scheduled to be playing within a matter of days against entertaining opposition in Costa Rica and Nigeria respectively. I was swiftly logging into the FIFA ticketing system for both games, with fingers and toes crossed that I would be successful, as travel plans and accommodation needed to be booked. In my four previous editions of the World Cup, only for the first one did I officially purchase tickets in my name, for the Italia ‘90, well ahead of the option to buy online, these were acquired in an Italian bank in Genoa in April, a few months ahead of the competition!
Thankfully I was successful in getting match tickets for Russia, leaving the only pre-travel angst to the securing of my return fast train ticket from St Petersburg to Helsinki despite having bought the ticket at considerable expense six months before the trip from Russian Trains. I suspect someone forgot about my reservation ahead of ticket production and the train was fully booked. Many a telephone conversation was required, as well as digging my heels in regarding a horrendous slow train alternative. Only a week before I set off it seems extra carriages were added to the fast train, and they compensated me for all the inconvenience by upgrading my travel to Russia to First Class.
Aside from the first hour in St Petersburg when it felt very Soviet, I was soon bowled over by the city and it’s beauty. Arrival at Finlandskaya Railway Station saw the International train passengers shovelled through a rather unattractive side gate and a line of soldiers keeping the locals awaiting their loved ones out on the pavement. I was one of the lucky recipients of a such a very warm local embrace, always a special feeling. The Hotel St Petersburg was just a short walk along the Neva river, but in order to get to the waters edge we firstly walked by the considerable statue of Lenin in the square in front of the grand station facade reserved for more local travellers. It was an immediate reminder of the past, and the fact this was once Leningrad, his home town. The Soviet feel continued on the pavement by the Neva where we seemed to be fighting against a tide of immaculately dressed naval cadets on the way back to their barracks following a parade of some description. The hotel was right on an apex of the river, and the room afforded the most incredible views of the city across the Neva, complete with the Aurora, the famous old naval vessel where the revolution was signalled all those years ago.
I never tired of that stunning hotel vista with floor to roof windows that ran the length of the room. The changing colours on the buildings across the water with the changing light were a marvel, culminating in a Saturday night extravaganza of fireworks with the best view in town restricted to a vast window facing couch for two, complete with Prosecco! Coinciding with the longest night, St Petersburg was celebrating the graduation of another year of students with a concert in the square by the Hermitage, shown live on tv, complete with the sailing of a majestic red sailed clipper through the gap caused by the visually arresting sight of the road bridge lifted to near the hotel, with a flotilla of boats in proximity to enjoy the fireworks from the water.
From the minute I arrived at the railway station in Helsinki en route to Russia, the first people I saw were a small pocket of Mexican fans. This set the tone for my entire 10 day sojourn, this World Cup might have ultimately given a number of European nations a shot in the arm, but this was South and Latin Americas tournament, they came in vast numbers, and not just to see the football. Russia and neighbouring lands like Finland were privy to the curiosity and the delight of thousands of fans from every country qualified from the Americas, and in some cases, pockets of fans from non qualified lands too. One of my personal highlights was to meet, and get my photo taken with a group of El Salvador fans who had come to lend support to Costa Rica!
I have been in many a beautiful city, Venezia, Paris, Prague and Buenos Aires to name merely a few, but none of them can compare to Peter the Great’s vision for a city, St Petersburg is simply stunning. It is a very large city, built on many different islands you are never that far water wherever you go. The main tourist attractions are all within a certain walkable radius, albeit it would be impossible to enjoy it all in a day. Peter and Paul fortress is built on the Peterhof island, with it’s stunning high gold gilded spires of the Cathedral which are a feature of the city skyline. Across the Neva, you can climb halfway up St Isaac’s Cathedral from where the views across the relatively flat city are wonderful. In the park in front of this church is the statue of the main man Peter the Great. On the Neva near this statue you have the option of taking a river boat cruise through the intricate canal system that gives St Petersburg the feel of a more lavish Amsterdam. The most stunning of the churches in the city is The Saviour on the Spilled Blood Cathedral, the most Russian Orthodox of them all with its iconic colourful domes and incredible paintings. The fan zone for the World Cup was in the vicinity of this church, affording a fantastic backdrop of those magnificent domes to the party atmosphere of the collectively gathered fans from all around the world.
It wasn’t just because of Brazil and Argentina playing in the city that St Petersburg had a really South American carnival feel. The decision to allow fans access to the rail network across Russia between World Cup cities for free meant that fans moved around to soak up more culture in the days between matches, and of course St Petersburg is one of the top attractions in the country at any time. Peruvians, Mexicans, Colombians and the occasional Uruguayan could be spotted, bringing colour, flamboyance and excitement with them giving the city a truly International carnival feel. It was wonderful, especially for a man who was so regularly in South America until 2010, but with only one trip this decade it acted as a reminder of how much I miss it, I was in my element. The Russians were too, the sheer joy the visitor brought had a profound effect on the locals, a feel good factor pervaded the whole city. Russians are extremely friendly people anyway, but it is maybe an aspect of the country that those who have never been fail to realise as press coverage never focuses on the positives, sadly.
The new St Petersburg Stadium is a little way from the centre of the city on its own island in the corner of a magnificent park. It is well served by two Metro lines that will bring you to either side of the magnificent ground. One of the underground options brings you to the far end of the park, but it was a wonderful tree lined boulevard-esque pedestrian only walk through the park to the “spaceship” like, futuristic new home of Zenit. On my two journeys to my games I had the wonderful opportunity to catch up with two great friends from South America. Ahead of the Brazil game I had lunch at a restaurant in the park with Luciano from Port Alegre. This game was just one of eight that he attended across five of the host cities, where he estimates he clocked up 6,726 km’s!! Well we walked one of those kilometres together toward the real party atmosphere ahead of the Costa Rica game.
The game was never dull, and it seemed to be heading to a 0-0 draw with VAR rightly overturning a decision for a penalty as Neymar had once again clearly cheated. Indeed, one of the low points of the tournament was his incessant antics, and I think he lost another chunk of admirers through such actions. The penalty being denied brought one of two unsavoury incidents that I witnessed at the games I watched. A woman a few rows behind me had clearly been cheering for Costa Rica, and in expressing her delight at the VAR decision she was rewarded by a Brazilian woman in the row above pouring her beer all over her! A real flash point arose, but sadly, only the woman who had been soaked got removed! The drink had kicked in, and the Brazilian joy was turning to anger as the majority of the neutrals were right behind plucky Costa Rica. The woman sat beside me packed away eight beers, and she may well have met her new partner during the game, but sadly he was sitting on the other side of an elderly Norwegian, and they just invaded this guy’s space without a thought, or indeed a suggestion someone swapped seats! In the end Brazil won it, deservedly so on chances created, but the first was so late in the game it felt cruel, with the second a mere cherry on top deep into added time. The mask of the constantly happy Brazilian fan had slipped during the course of this one, but by the final whistle they could all walk out into the St Petersburg early evening sun with that happy mask back on to delude for another few days!
I am more drawn to Argentina and Uruguay, everyone who knows me will testify to that, so yes, maybe parts of that last paragraph are told with glee, but what happened in the next game left me feeling enraged! However, ahead of that particular match, I was waiting outside the same Metro stop, to go to the same restaurant to meet Champi, a friend of my great friends, the Lavrut family from San Fernandez, Buenos Aires. Champi was across in Scotland with two of the family as part of a quartet in the UK for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, and in down time between games I gave them a tour of my country. It was cracking to catch up with him again, and you could feel the excitement in him, this was his first ever World Cup Finals game! It took me back to when we donned our kilts in Santa Margherita Ligure and took the train to Genoa for the tea total encounter with Costa Rica, as fan violence had meant a 24 hour drink ban within a significant radius of any hosting city! In light of the skirmishes I witnessed in the stadium in Russia, perhaps an out and out alcohol ban would be too much, but finding a way of restricting what each individual can buy would be sensible. No one should be allowed, let alone able to consume eight pints during a game, over and above however many beers my Brazilian neighbour had consumed in the run up to kick off!
Anyway, Champi and I were merely trying to get a beer, but the restaurant was so busy and the service so poor, at least half of our time was lost waiting, however it did bring us an encounter with a really cool Nigerian guy. Post beer, the same walk to the stadium had a slightly different task to fulfill, as I wanted to reprise a photo from Japan 2002, with Argentine shirted me in between two Nigerian fans! It took too long and lacked the spontaneity of Kyoto, but we got one! This was the last of the round robin games in the group, and Argentina were hanging on by a thread. A draw with Iceland and a real thumping by Croatia had them on the brink, but a win here against Nigeria would get them through. The Argentine support was absolutely incredible, and the whole stadium rocked slightly when they hit full pelt!
Argentine took the lead with a moment of genius from their talisman Lionel Messi, lift off!! Nigeria grew a little more confident, and the pockets of their fans who were seriously drown out started to believe. When the equaliser arrived and with Argentina misfiring, the atmosphere started to get tense. A draw was good enough for Nigeria to progress and they went back into their shell, playing the percentage game, and doubtlessly hoping the weight of angst from the seats would continue to upset albiceleste’s rhythm. In this period of parity a Boca shirted and hatted wee man squat barrel turned really nasty against Nigerians a good number of rows below. His racist chants encouraged one or two others around him, but he was largely causing outrage, and commendably other Argentine fans tried to reason with the guy, but he just turned his abusive tongue on fans wearing other Argentine club shirts, and a fight broke out. The black shirted “stewards” , who lay low until the day glow volunteers needed them waded in and at least three fans were lifted out. The Boca idiot left but not without spitting and punching anyone in his path, and a poor lad in a Venezuela shirt who had merely slapped his head having had beer thrown at him as he tried to calm the situation also got led away. One thing I feel Argentine fans need to do is lose the club shirt at an International game! I was embarrassed, and angry by this episode, but it coincided with one last hurrah of cohesive Argentine play, and it united the fans finally and the volume rose in support, you could just feel the frisson of anticipation. When the winner arrived minutes from the end the roof could have been blown off as the most incredible energy was released. It was one of the most spine tingling moments I have ever experienced in football, right up there with Steve Hislop’s winner at Clyde that sent Inverness into the Premier League! Argentina had qualified and the relief was palpable, and while the atmosphere was incredible, “the incident” had soured my night. I slipped out on full time and left the fans to party. It was already 23,00 and getting a swift metro ahead the crowds was advisable as I had a lengthy walk to the hotel from the nearest station, but it was still 12,30 before I arrived. I was up at 5am the next morning to catch the train back to Helsinki on a train full of Argentines who quite obviously hadn’t been to bed!!
My World Cup was over, but I had loved the whole week. It was very special to have my very own local guide in Tania, who was struck by the colour and vibrancy the fans brought to her city despite not liking football. It will be interesting to go back when St Petersburg is less chaotic, but given people flock there every year, the queue for the Hermitage might only be a little smaller as I have yet to savour its splendours. It is always worthy of leaving something up your sleeve as a reason to go back, speaks the man who returns to his favourite cities often!