So it’s the end of the first day in Russia.
I’ve been literally hugged to death.
It’s a bit of a turn-up for the books after the hype of England fans being kicked from pillar to post.
To say the local people I have met so far are happy to see me – and all the other England fans in town – is an understatement.
But lets wind back 48 hours.
My preferred route into this World Cup was via Leeds, then onto Thessaloniki in Greece, before heading across to Volvograd.
Not quite as funky as my route into World Cup Brazil 2014, which took in Trinidad, Guyana, a 16-seater plane across the jungle, a walk across the border, a taxi ride to Boa Vista, a two night stay in the house of a couple I had never met before, then a plane to Manaus for England’s first game.
But beggars can’t be choosers.
Enter Leeds Bradford Airport.
I’ve never been to Leeds Bradford Airport.
And I have to say – it’s an experience in itself. Quite literally wall to wall stag and hen parties off to some exotic destination for a weekend of debauchery.
Landed in Greece, and with our flight to Russia delayed due to massive storms earlier in the day, I decided to head off into Thessaloniki town with Nik and Marcus – two Leeds lads I bumped into at the airport.
“And you can take that Stuart Dallas back too. He’s shitte”
they said to me as we jumped in the taxi.
“But to be fair. We do have a tendency to finish players”
they then admitted.
What a cool buzzing city Thessaloniki was. Lots of outdoor bars and cafes. And people.
Lots of people. Just hanging out.
A meal by the sea. A few drinks. A cab back to the airport. Forty winks on the plane.
We were there.
Russia – greeted by blue skies and a comfortable heat.
Passport control was good indicator of how hard-core the Russians were treating security this World Cup. I have to say I got a bit worried when I was still at the passport window 15 minutes later with six passport officers pouring over my documentation.
At least they had a sense of humour.
“You look like Jay Z”
Because of my glasses apparently. Or maybe it was the hat.
“I wish I had his money” I said
They laughed. A good sign. We were told before we came that apparently Russians did not laugh.
I had already proven them wrong and I had barely even stepped on Russian soil.
Loaded up the directions to the accommodation on the Yandex Taxi app. Two minutes later a cab turns up to drop me and the Leeds lads into the city centre 30 mins later.
£3.20. I thought the app was faulty and gave it a shake.
No… 270 roubles it was.
This was going to be fun.
This was the type of tour that we love. An economically friendly tour.
Dropped the lads off at their hotel – which was fenced off and had more hard-core security than any airport I’ve been to recently – and headed off to my apartment.
This was to become a theme for the day. And no doubt the trip.
Security. Security. Security.
Security was everywhere.
Not the relatively low profile approach we have in London.
Over here, police were all over the place. And you had airport-style security arches met you as as you went into into stations and into the fan-fest.
Got to my pad – a stones throw from Volgograd Station where hundreds of England fans would be streaming out of in the next two days after taking the 24 hour train down from Moscow. It was a lovely studio apartment on the ninth floor of a block of flats.
The host, Elizaveta, was super friendly – something that I was going to get used to over the next few days – and very excited about having a load of football fans visit her city even though she didn’t like football.
A couple of hours kip and then time for a trek into town. I was somewhat nervous as I was going against the Foreign Office warning and was walking alone. A black man in Russia walking alone with an England shirt on was apparently a big no-no.
It didn’t take long for my fears to be allayed.
I was stopped so many times by people between my apartment and the River Volga. Welcoming me. Hugging me. Telling me how the loved England. And these were were all Russian people.
Loads of photos.
Loads of reciting of England players’ names.
Loads of people who told me they want to live in England.
Lots of hugging. Lots and lots.
This wasn’t the Russia that I had heard about before I left.
This trip was about to become interesting.
The fanfest in Volvograd I thought was an area of beauty.
Normally I don’t do fanfests. OK the one in Rio on Copacabana beach was pretty special. But in general, being cooped in an area being forcefed (OK maybe an exaggeration) Budweider beer is my idea of hell on earth.
But the fanfest in Volgograd was literally by the River Volga. A beautiful view made even more special because the screen is placed in front of a ampitheatre-style set of steps that lead up to manicured park at a higher level. The fans watch the matches from the park at the higher level and also on the steps – just like they were standing on a terrace.
Great view. And great vibe.
Elizveta came into town a bit later to give me a whirlwind tour of historic Volvograd. Literally all of the city was bombed in the war, so the half-dozen or so original buildings are treated with the utmost respect.
Then I headed off to the fanfest where I met up with a Nigerian posse that I had bumped into earlier to watch the Nigeria v Croatia match. There were probably 60 or so local Nigerians – and a few Tunisians – making the fan fest pretty lively that evening.
Shame Nigeria were not as lively on the pitch as they went down 2-0.
Nigeria 🇳🇬 may have had a bit of a mare tonight against Croatia. That didn’t stop their fans in Volgograd keeping the #worldcup vibe alive.
Really interesting chat with the Naija crew. They love it in Russia. Not a bad word to be said.
Must say – the locals have been spot on pic.twitter.com/rG3d9MdbUp
— Billy TheBee Grant (@billythebee99) June 17, 2018
The night was topped off with a nightcap with a couple of Nottingham characters I met on the plane – Kate and Brendan – and bumped into at the fan park. They were World Cup virgins, but were absolutely loving it. I thought the night was over, then Peter and Martin popped up from nowhere – Peter having spent the last three days in Siberia … as you do.
Peter I saw last in Lens for Euro 2016, whereas Martin came over from Australia for the Leeds game at Griffin Park in November before heading back home .. as you do. They twisted my hand and forced me to head to Volvograd’s after-party in an open-air bar right on the River Volga, which was going on until 5am.
Here we had more hugging.
This time 4am hugging.
The locals seemed even more delighted to see people from England at this time of the morning.
A great first day in Russia. And not a sniff of any trouble of any bad vibes. Only very friendly people.
And a load of folk very happy to be here (of which I was rapidly becoming one).
It wasn’t all fun, fun, fun. I had some really interesting conversation with locals about various subjects. We debated the fact that we were led to believe that Russians hated the English, but we have experienced only warmth and love.
Dheji – who was from Nigeria but had lived here for seven years – claimed he has never, EVER, been abused or disrespected here once. Same for his friends I spoke to, like Chinedum, who was President of the Nigerian society in Volvograd. They loved the place and were singing its praises. And who am I to argue with someone who has lived in the country for nearly a decade.
I had a number of interesting conversations on Putin and the Oligarchs. Apparently the younger folk do not necessarily share the older more traditional Russians’ views of their leaders and the way their country is run. These folk being more social media-savy are able to gather news from sources other than Russian media and this has shaped their opinon.
Many people I spoke to were quite upset and disappointed that more people from England were not coming over to Russia because they were scared. They were majorly disappointed with the world viewing Russia in a very negative light. They kept emphasising the fact that they were very warm and hospitable people. At the same time, they were also very proud to be Russian.
Anyway it’s been an interesting 24 hours.
And a very positive 24 hours too.
I’m now very much looking forward to seeing what the next few days brings.
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