Saturday 18th June
Volgograd was proving to be a really pleasant surprise.
After the first day – which was a pretty full on near 24 hr experience – the next day was to be a more mellow affair if I was going to make it through to match-day in one piece.
An amble down to the fanzone. More England fans had arrived. Many of them had arrived on the cramped 24 hour trains from Moscow – an experience only to be take onboard by ardent backpackers eager to see the world and football fans, eager to see their team play, alike.
I caught up with Di from Proud Lions and Marcus – the Leeds fan from the plane – as well as a number of Bees fans in the house – Ed and Fred – as we watched Brazil struggle against Switzerland (1-1) and Mexico take Germany apart (1-0).
The Tunisians were starting to warm up. They were definitely the lively posse. Lots of dancing and conga-ing up and down this fabulous fan park.
I’m still enthusing about this fan park. The way it is layed out gives it a different dynamic. With fans on the lower level. And fans at the upper level. And fans on the steps. And milling around the park – being attacked by those really annoying flies.
How annoying were those flies? They were constantly there. Buzzing around your face. So much so, when I flew home a few days later, I was apparently sweeping the imaginary floes off my face as I was hearing imaginary buzzing in my ear – like I had fly-tinnitus.
You knew the Tunisians were going to be lively tomorrow. But what surprised me more was how many of them there were compared to the English. The Marselles experience and the bad press about extreme right-wing hooligans (very much justified in many cases) had undoubtedly put England fans off. Which was a shame – sort of. But in a way it was quite nice. A small, tight-knit bunch of Brits who were happy to be there.
Caught up with Robbie, Troopz and Tal from Arsenal Fan TV before taking a detour to see Nik from Leeds and jump on his internet radio show followed by a few swifties back in Friends bar – hanging with the Tunisians – and I was set for the night. Reltively early. Only 4am.
Early start tomorrow.
Sunday 17thJune: Match day.
Big day today.
But plenty to do before I hit the stadium.
Elizaveta – my host – came around at 7.30am and set up breakfast. We were going to do a feature do for Channel 5 news. The press had picked up on the fact that many fans were staying in the homes of Russians and they wanted to film the experience.
So bright and early on Sunday morning, we had a camera crew in filming us in the apartment drinking tea (of course) and me handing over Brentford shirts, chocolate and bottle openers (essential) as gifts.
Filming done, it was a quick shoot down to the England team hotel as I was whisked down to the Mother Russia statue to take part in a ceremony commemorating the soldiers killed in the Battle of Stalingrad.
Elizveta had shown me around the other memorials in town but this one quite literally blew all of these away.
It was huge.
And in the ceremony in the crypt below I presented the wreath alongside FA Chairman Greg Clarke – a pretty moving experience it has to be said – before chatting to the worlds’ press about my experiences in Russia so far.
A quick photo with a couple of lively Tunisians (they were all lively the Tunisians) by the Mother statue and I was on my way.
Whilst I was hanging with Leeds Marcus in the fanpark later and Philip and Josh at the German bar Bamberg later, little did I know that there was a massive media storm brewing.
By the time I had got down to the Volvograd arena, pretty much every media outlet was carrying the photo of myself and the Tunisian lads. It was everywhere. I was getting messages from all over saying it was front page BBC. And microsoft home page. And all over various tabloids with film footage and interviews from the ceremony.
The warmth I had received from the Russias hit a mark. A black man dispelling the rumours flying around that the Russians were going to kill me.
All I could report on was what I had experienced myself.
I’m not stupid enough to think that the problems in Russia had simply disappeared overnight. Of course there was still a nasty element lurking. But what I do know, and what I was able to express, is that tournament like this always brings out the masses.
The people who are not normally even really into football.
Euro 1996 in England was a game-changer in the UK. That was the first tournament where the flag of St George was given a rebrand (for the sake of a word) with the faces of young children and black, white, asian, young and old people painted with the St Georges cross. This would NEVER have taken place before the Euros. But with the whole country coming out to support the team, not just the hard core football fans, this painted the country I a whole new light.
Japan in 2002 was extraordinary. Bars of drunken Japanese men and women singing “Its coming home” along with England fans and an array of nationalities. These weren’t football fans. These were people who came to experience – and live to the full – the World Cup. And embrace other nationalities.
Then Germany 2006. I remember arriving in Dortmund to see Trinidad play Sweden. I spoke to some German women who were working at the hotel we were staying at. Actually I tell a lie. I wasn’t a hotel. It was actually an art gallery. And they had created a ‘football sleeping’ installation. There were various bedrooms. Myself and King Tut were given the tour (the caravan of love. The space pod. The tree house) and were made to choose one. Every morning we would wake up to tourists peeping into our bedrooms as they came to view the exhibition.
Anyway I digress.
I remember asking her if she was excited about the World Cup. She told me she wasn’t (this was the first day remember) and most people didn’t really watch the German national team because it was followed by ‘bad people’.
I did the olde raise of the eyebrows.
What I saw over the next three weeks was the anthesis of that as every German came out to celebrate the World Cup. Again there were people who would normally not get involved in watching the game. The streets and bars were thronged with bery excitable men and women. Boys and girls. Watching games with passion. The World Cup does this.
And I guess that is where Germany. And Portugal. And even to an extent Ukraine (Kiev). And Poland (Poznan). Differ to Russia. Or Volgograd anyway.
Being a smaller city with no set centre, it didn’t have the bar culture that these other European cities had. Yes it had bars. But in Cologne you would walk down the street and every bar would be showing the football – absolutely packed full of people. The atmosphere was tremendous.
Yes there were bars in Volvograd. But for once it was easier to go to the fanpark for a bit of atmosphere.
It was time to get to the stadium. Which stood in the shadow of Mother Russia on the banks of the River Volga.
There were plenty of fans buzzing around as I got there early for pretty much the first time ever.
Tunisians were well confident. Again it was the first match of the World Cup.
Banking on England’s inability to capitalize in big tournament, they were confident that they would at least get a draw. If not, sneak a win.
For the first time ever at an England match, I was sitting practically on the half-way line. Great view. With the small but lively throng of England fans to my right. And the larger and equally lively throng of Tunisians to my left.
I had all sorts of characters sitting around me. Rebekah Vardy. Harry Kane’s brother Charlie and his mum Kim. Harry Maguire’s whole family.
And for the first time at a football match (bar when I go to watch Dulwich Hamlet play) I sat in my seat with a full strength (not alchohol free) beer (OK it was Budweiser .. so a sort-of beer) in my hand.
A great start. England passing the Tunisians to death
A nice early goal to steady the nerves. Vardy
A few fluffy moments giving the ball away needlessly. Maguire.
Some dodgy refereeing. Kane penalty calls.
A needless penalty conceded. Walker. Although I did think it was a bit soft
A frustrating second half. England
A genius managerial double-substitution move. Loftus-Cheek. Rashford
Then just when it looked all over, up pops Harry Kane to head the ball home in the 91stminute and send the England fan into raptures.
That was a game that, in any other tournament, we could have drawn. Or even lost. So maybe we’re learning.
Some people were bemoaning the performance – saying it was the usual uninspiring stuff. But I disagree.
For someone who took 5 days to fly to Manaus .. followed by a round trip to Sao Paulo via Rio – there is nothing worse than to be planning your trip five days after arriving when you have a three week holiday booked.
Personally I think the qualifying campaign has set England up nicely to dig ourselves out of the group and take on teams who play more free-flowing football in the knockout stages. No it wasn’t pretty at times. But then were unbeaten – winning 8 games and drawing 2 – with only Germany, Portugal and Spain having better qualifying records than that.
It was back home to blighty to recuperate for a few days. The trip had been short but it felt like I’d been away for three weeks.
A quick scoot down to the BBC to appear on Victoria Derbyshire’s show (click here from 35 mins). I was her live breakfast show guest during the whole of the Germany 2006 World Cup on the morning of every England match and we’ve pretty much kept in touch ever since. I was on to dispel the fears I expressed of travelling to Russia a few weeks earlier on the same show.
Interview done. Suddenly I was back in the real world.
I had decided a while back to give Nizhny Novgorod a miss. I was told before it was the most picturesque venues of the three group matches. But I was making a gamble that England would get further than the group stages – so the Belgium game in Kaliningrad and the knockout matches were the ones to go to in my book. So I would be in the rare situation of watching an England group tournament match at home rather than in the country it was being played in.
And with Germany and Argentina and Portugal and Spain and Brazil all skirting very close to the wind of bing eliminated early, you just never know … I may have made the right gamble.
Roll on Sunday.
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