Thursday, 28 June 2018

England v Belgium. 28/06/18

"They don't seem to have 'Ra Ra Rasputin' available for karaoke, which I guess isn't a surprise given he was poisoned, shot and thrown in a river less than a mile away"

England 0-1 Belgium. Kaliningrad Stadium.
Thursday 28/06/18
The best thing about holding a World Cup in Russia, aside from the fantastic party the hosts have put on, is that for the duration of the tournament you can visit the Russian Federation without having to hand over a significant wad of cash for the privilege.

Any other time of the year, a standard tourist visa to enter the country weighs in at £108.40. It's even more expensive should you want to visit the exclave of Kaliningrad as it's position on the Baltic Sea, separated from the rest of Russia by the Baltic States, means that you technically have to leave and then re-enter the country to get there. To do that, you need a "double entry visa" at the cost of £151.40. What does President Putin think we are, made of money?

With a Fan ID however, available to anybody who wants to visit Russia for the World Cup, no visa fee is necessary and you can travel anywhere in Russia. Given that I'd always wanted to visit Saint Petersburg but could never justify paying over 100 notes to do so, this was fantastic news. When the draw was made and threw up England v Belgium in Kaliningrad, it became even better. A few days in Saint Petersburg followed by a few days in the home of the Baltic Fleet? Sign me up.

Luckily, I had left my firearm behind ahead of the
overnight train to Saint Petersburg
Saint Petersburg is located 692 miles away from Nizhny Novgorod were we were travelling from following England's 6-1 win over Panama 24 hours earlier, which meant it was the perfect opportunity to partake in one of the greatest experiences you can have when travelling around Eastern Europe - the overnight sleeper train.

This one was particularly brutal, setting off from Nizhny at 1.58pm local time on Monday and arriving in Saint Petersburg at 12.05pm on Tuesday, a mere 22 hours and seven minute journey that cost a ridiculously low £46.29 for a bed in an open carriage. Boris Johnson and the rest of the government may be busy slating the Russians, but Chris Grayling should get his incompetent posterior out to Russia as soon as possible to see how a railway should be run.

The luxurious carriage for the 22 hour train trip
to Saint Petersburg
Not only does our erstwhile Transport Secretary think it is acceptable to pay £26.70 for an hours trip from Brighton to London, but he also reckons that it is okay for that service to involve not having a seat and being crammed in like a sardine. To further highlight the absolute shower that our railways are compared to Russia, we arrived into Saint Petersburg dead on arrival time despite the distance. No need for delay repay on Russian railways.

The journey itself was your typical overnight trip, people sharing food and drinks and stories with each other as if they were old friends as opposed to recently acquainted folk who had been thrown together in a train carriage with no air conditioning as the temperature topped 30 degrees.

Beer and the rolling Russian countryside
There were two particular characters I got chatting to in order to while away the time. The first was a very friendly Russian chap who bizarrely kept his sunglasses on for the entire time he was on the train, which was approximately the first four hours. Obviously, we talked about football and I found it strange that for such a passionate fan of Russia - and Chelsea - he wasn't watching their game on his mobile, given they were in action against Uruguay at the time. When I asked him why, he didn't seem to have an answer so I presumed something was lost in translation as his English was not great and my Russian non-existent bar "placebo", which means thank you if you're interested.

I put this lack of watching Russia down to the poor mobile signal, and then we talked about England's chances and how well they had played against Panama, after which I showed him some photos on my phone of the previous day in Nizhny Novgorod. It was only when he got up to alight from the train and pulled out a white stick that I realised he was in fact blind. Needless to say, asking a blind man why he wasn't watching something and then showing him photos wasn't my finest moment.

I'd just about managed to remove my foot from my mouth when his replacement rocked up, an older Russian man complete with his family of older teenagers in tow. He didn't speak a word of English but had pretty good German, so we were able to strike up some form of conversation in the mother tongue of the Fatherland. Soon, he was sharing some home made bread item packed with onions with me and the rest of his clan. The trolley women came along, sold us all a beer and then the ticket collector came along and told us no drinking on the train. You can have that one actually Mr Grayling, you don't get that on Southern.

UNESCO World Heritage Site Saint Petersburg
It was a surprisingly good nights sleep given that it was like sleeping in an oven and after arrival in Saint Petersburg, it was off to explore Russia's finest city. The architecture is absolutely stunning with the Winter Palace - former home of the monarchy and now the world famous Hermitage Museum - the crowning jewel. The whole centre of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage site and with the crystal blue Neva River and what seemed like hundreds of gold-topped churches everywhere, it compares to anywhere in the world for beauty.

The Winter Palace, home of the Russian monarchy and now the
Hermitage Museum 
The Neva River

Stunning Saint Petersburg
It's also bloody big. When you travel to most foreign places, you'll ask someone for directions and they'll tell you it isn't walk-able, you'll need a bus or metro. Then it turns out it is only 10 minutes away by foot. In Saint Petersburg, it was the complete opposite. You'd look at a map and see for example the palace were Rasputin was murdered wasn't that far away, an hour and a half later and you'd still be walking towards it.

Argentinian fans were out in force ahead of their
game with Nigeria
Pervert for me, please
Over 10km was covered in an afternoon but all that walking was made fun by the electric atmosphere in the city. Argentina were taking on Nigeria that night at the Saint Petersburg Stadium and there were tens of thousands of blue and white striped shirts everywhere you looked. I met up with our fellow Brighton contingent for dinner and then to watch the game in an outside pop up bar as Argentina squeaked through thanks to a Marcos Rojo goal in the last minute.

A pop up outside bar for Argentina v Nigeria

And "a few quiet drinks" turns into some significant partying with the
Argies and the Nigerians
After that, we hit a few more local watering holes for a "few quiet drinks". Needless to say, once the Argies returned from the stadium and into town the "quiet drinks" were out the window as the party really got started. The vodka was flowing and soon we hit a karaoke bar, where disappointingly 'Ra Ra Rasputin' was not an available song selection. This should hardly have come as a surprise given he was poisoned, shot and then thrown in the river less than a mile from the bar.

We read lots about how Russian elections are rigged and while there is no doubt that Vladimir Putin has had his opposition bumped off or barred from standing against him on spurious terms, if this karaoke bar taught us anything other than not to sing about homeless drunks who bought down the royal family, it is that he would win a fair election regardless of who stood against him.

Greatest t-shirt ever? And only £8
The Russians were all very non-plussed about six English blokes taking over with renditions of Delilah and Taylor Swift songs until one Russian got up to sing. It turned out his choice was a song about Putin, complete with a cartoon video of him doing various masculine things. All of a sudden, the place went mad as people began joining in, singing, clapping and dancing along. And all this in Saint Petersburg, one of the supposedly more liberal, anti-Putin cities. All of a sudden, my decision to part with £8 for a t-shirt of Putin seductively removing sunglasses with the caption "From Russia, with Love" and a calendar with him in various poses including firing a gun and fishing was very much justified.

The party continues
Saint Petersburg, where the sun never goes down - literally. This was
taken at 4am in the morning on the way back to the hotel

The other noticeable thing about Saint Petersburg other than her size and beauty is that the sun never sets - quite literally. This can make it an absolute nightmare when it comes to time keeping, as rolling out of a bar into bright sunshine at 4am in the morning can attest to. The people of the city never seem to sleep either, my hour-and-a-half walk home taking in restaurants still open with people sat outside eating dinner despite it being the same time that the average milkman starts his rounds.

This sunlight and every-restaurant-being-open situation allowed for a 7am kebab breakfast on the way back to the hotel and a few hours sleep before the flight to Kaliningrad. Saint Petersburg had instantly charted into the top five cities I've ever been, but the Kaliningrad was a completely different kettle of fish. As soon as you entered the city, which foreigners were banned from until the fall of the Soviet Union, it is a very different feel. This is hardly surprising given that until the end of World War II it had belonged to Germany. The area was given to the victorious Russian's, the ethnic population were largely shipped out and lots of Soviet's moved in.

Stuffed bear at Saint Petersburg airport,
as you do...
Glad to be here, amber region

It's pre-Russian past gives it a very Germanic feel. Plenty of the street and building names are still in German - we were staying in the Fredrich Hotel for example. The architecture is very German and even the culture, with our dinner on arrival and breakfast the following morning consisting of German cheese and sausages and German beer. You don't feel as if you are in Russia in Kaliningrad - rather than photos of Putin everywhere, it's all about Peter the Great. There is even a gay bar, "the best pub in Kaliningrad" according to one local. As an added bonus, the sun also sets, leaving no excuse for being in a pub until 4am in the morning. Shame.

Just a bowl of cheese for dinner for me
German breakfast...
Given it's close proximity to Poland and with that the ease of travel from England, there were far more Three Lions supporters in Kaliningrad than had been in Nizhny Novogrod, while the Belgian's had bought their fair share too. The crosses of St George and Belgian flags were flying everywhere around the pretty city square, around the corner from which we found the best pub of the trip. Located in an underground bunker, it had pictures of Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin on the walls, artillery shells decorating the shelves and replica army coats and hats for patrons to wear while they drank. Even better than the decor was that it was 90p a beer - served from a 2 litre plastic bottle - and 60p a vodka shot.

The greatest pub in the world - a big portrait of
Lenin on the wall
"Wear an authentic army hat and hold an authentic army
shell while you enjoy your 90p pint"

We left the bunker once to visit a couple of bars down by the beautiful riverside but returned within an hour  such was the bunkers brilliance and it was from here that we undertook the 20 minute walk to Kaliningrad Stadium, high-fiving and posing for pictures with locals along the way.

The ground is located on an island outside the city centre on wasteland, with quite literally nothing around it. One of the big problems with building new stadiums specifically for World Cup's is what becomes of them afterwards, and that certainly looks to be the case here.

Kaliningrad Stadium, build in the middle of nowhere
The stadium currently holds just shy of 34,000 across two tiers - a smaller Allianz Arena, including its location surrounded by nothing - which is set to be reduced to 25,000 after the World Cup. The local side are FC Baltika Kaliningrad who play in the second tier and their average attendance last season was 4,594. It doesn't take a Diane Abbott to work out that it could end up becoming a very big, white elephant.

This place will unfortunately have just 4,000 rattling around in
it next season
Which is a shame as it is a nice ground and they went through quite the ordeal to build it. It's situated on marshland which had to be stablised and compacted before construction and then it was discovered they were actually building on top of infrastructure of pre-war buildings that nobody knew existed. Such was the damage that Kaliningrad suffered under a combination of British bombing, the Nazi's fleeing and the advancement of the Red Army, the structures had been quite literally wiped from the map.

Two tiered all the way around, we were located in the lower tier behind the goal with a brilliant view of the action. Not that you needed one as with Belgium and England already qualified for the knockout stages, both sides sent out weakened teams and the result was a turgid game won 1-0 by Adnan Januzaj's strike.

Lots more England in Kaliningrad for this one

England Reserves v Belgium Reserves - not what we had in mind
when forking out £80 a ticket
A fierce debate seems to have raged at home about whether Gareth Southgate was right to pick a reserve side, but if you asked supporters of both teams in Kaliningrad whether they felt selecting second choice players was the right thing to do, 95% of those there would say no. Not only did it feel slightly disrespectful to all of us who'd spent time and money getting to Kaliningrad  - the cheapest match ticket was £86 - but the World Cup is only seven games long and why derail the momentum both sides had built up so far?

Perhaps us England fans are still scarred by Roy Hodgson changing his team to rest players against Slovakia in Euro 2016, only to see us knocked out in the next round by Iceland, but it just didn't feel like the right thing to do. Still, if Harry Kane ends up lifting the World Cup in the Luzhniki Stadium in two weeks, nobody will care nor remember that we had to watch the stiffs play out a dull encounter in a dead rubber.

After the game, just like in Nizhny it felt like the whole city had come out to party with the football fans in town. Bars were packed, people were singing and smiling and you'd never have guessed that we were in the very same place from where Russia could probably kick off World War III with their Baltic Fleet. Presumably, those commanding that fleet don't drink the local vodka. It's strong, I'll say that much.

The border with the EU - hide your Novichok

A painful experience, crossing back into Poland -
especially when you're wearing a Soviet hat in 30 degrees because it won't
fit in your bag
The following morning it was up bright and early for the five hour bus from Kaliningrad to Gdansk, Poland. This involved a long wait at border control to pass back into the EU, two hours but which felt more like a lifetime given the heat on the bus and the hangovers kicking in. Thankfully, the border police could find no traces of Novichok on us or discover the obscene amount of Putin merchandise being bought across the border, which no doubt would have marked me out as a newly-anointed Russian agent.

The sole Polish flag after their elimination from the World Cup

We had a few hours in Gdansk to have a brief look at the old town and take some photos of the sole Polish flag the locals hadn't torn down in disgust at their own disappointing showing in the tournament before another flight to Warsaw and then homeward bound to Heathrow.

Southern Rail, clearly wanting to impress having heard so many good things about my Russian train experience, put on quite the welcoming party by cancelling a load of trains out of Victoria and that meant an eventual return home at 2.30am - just the 22 hours after setting off from the hotel in Kaliningrad. What was it about this trip and ridiculous journeys?

And that bought the curtain down on my World Cup adventure - for now, at least. Will there be a part three of McCarthy's Football Travels in Russia? I've got a ticket to the final, conditional on the Three Lions making it. Over to you, England...

England: Jordan Pickford, Phil Jones, John Stones (Maguire), Gary Cahill, Trent Alexander-Arnold (Danny Welbeck), Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Eric Dier, Fabian Delph, Danny Rose, Marcus Rashford, Jamie Vardy.

Belgium: Thibaut Courtois, Leander Dendoncker, Dedryck Boyata, Thomas Vermalen (Vincent Kompany), Nacer Chadli, Youri Tielemans, Mousa Dembele, Thorgan Hazard, Adnan Januzaj 1 (Dries Mertens), Marouane Fellani, Michy Batshuayi.

Attendance: 33,973

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