Part 4. From Panama to Belgium – and back
Being back in the UK watching England playing a group game was a bit of a weird experience for me.
I worked out that before this Panama game, I had only seen England playing in the group stages of a major tournament (that’s a World Cup or European Championships) only once whilst at home since missing the Columbia game in Lens, France 98 when I came back home for a wedding. Ironically it was the wedding of a mate who is joining me out in Moscow in a few days. Hopefully.
That match was the USA game in Rustenberg, South Africa in 2010 and I regretted every minute of not going. The best period of any tournament – and particular World Cup tournament – is always the group stages. Loads of fans from all over the world. Great atmosphere.
I flew into that tournament on the morning of the Algeria game in Cape Town (terrible match) and although I stayed out there and caught a load of non-England matches that I really enjoyed (like Ghana v Uruguay – the Suarez penalty incident – and Japan v Paraguay), I just felt that I missed that initial first week buzz by coming late.
I didnt do a video of the South Africa trip as such but a picture video thingy and can be seen here. Its actually pretty cool.
I have to admit, I did consider going to Nizny for the Panama game. But logistically it was one step beyond. And for most fans who had plotted up coming out from the third match (Belgium), it was all about the long-term. They plan for many late travellers was to stay out in Russia as long as England didn’t get knocked out.
Quarter-finals was the target. So mustn’t get greedy now.
The Panama game was tremendous. I have said before, I believe England have been incredibly unlucky in tournaments of past. In this game, it seemed that we cashed in our luck in one game. On another day, Lingard’s strike would have hit another player. Or the post. The goalkeeper would have saved both Harry Kane’s penalties. We would have totally dominated the game but not scored – resulting in the press getting on the team’s backs.
Not this time.
England came out of this game with flying colours and after a 6-1 romp, there were mutterings of the cup coming home with the powerhouses – Brazil. Germany. Argentina – not really setting the world alight with their qualifying campaign.
What a difference a week makes eh?
Meanwhile our Russia 2018 WhatsApp group was on fire as my crew were busily preparing for their trip to Kaliningrad via Gdansk.
This trip was hastily booked back in December at The Three Lions bar inside Wembley Stadium whilst the World Cup draw was taking place. As soon as Kaliningrad came out the hat, a quick look at the map was followed by a whipping out of the laptop and before you could say “Its coming home”, we were all booked to Gdansk. £120 return. Bargain.
We would worry about getting to Kaliningrad at a later stage.
A few weeks before the tournament was due to start, that logistics process was well and truly in effect.
There were no trains.
You couldn’t hire a car and take it across the border.
Taxis were booked up.
Coaches was the only option. £8 each way with an estimated delay of up to 5 hours at the border.
Sounds gruesome. But all part of the adventure.
The trip didn’t get off to the greatest of starts. After arriving over an hour early for my coach at Golders Green Station, 90 minutes later and a National Express Coach no-show (with no information either) I decided to jump in a taxi with Croatian visitor Ena who was also struggling to make her plane on time.
£100 later (that was almost as much as my flight cost – cheers) and I was at Stanstead by the skin of my teeth.
Word to self. Do NOT book National Express Coach airport transfer.
The guys who I normally travel with were on board for this trip. Obi, Spanish Dave and Paul had arrived a couple of hours before me and were relaxed and ready to go.
We arrived in Gdansk after 11pm and were met by Sergey the driver.
So how does Sergey fit in you may ask?
Long story really.
With the coaches full up from Gdansk and taxis also sold out – with many of them not having the necessary visa to make the trip to Russia – I had been asked by a next character – Jordan – to help him get to Kaliningrad.
A quick couple of phone calls later and I was in touch with a next character who I went to school with – Martin – via another character (you have probably got the drift now that there are a lot of characters at England away) I go to Brentford with – Mortgage – who lived in Gdansk who had a business partner who worked with Sergey.
So I arranged for Sergey to come down from Kaliningrad to Gdansk to take Jordan to Kaliningrad.
In a completely convoluted series of events, Jordan decided he did not need Sergey’s cabany more as he made alternative plans (awkward moment) although he had paid for it (not so awkward moment). Meanwhile, myself and Spanish Dave left for the coach at 6am after a sleepless night in Gdansk (which is beautiful by the way) whilst Obi – who make the mistake of power-napping in his hotel at 5am – missed the bus completely.
In came plan B.
Obi – completely dead to the world – gets a phone call in his hotel at 9am. Two hours after the coach had left.
“Hi. I’m Sergey. Im going to take you to Kaliningrad”
The confusion (Who the hell is Sergey?) followed by horror (I’ve missed the coach) was followed by joy (I’ve got a luxury ride to Russia whilst the other guys are roughing it on the bus).
We got to the border in two hours. And were through the first checkpoint within 30 minutes.
“This is easy” we thought.
Little did we know.
Two or maybe even three hours later and another three checkpoints down the line – one more Polish checkpoint and then two Russian checkpoints – and we were through.
Security officers came on board. Checked passports. Checked Fan IDs (the passes the Russians issued to fans which acted as visas). Took the passports away. Logged them. Made landing cards. Stamped the passports. Gave them back.
And then did the same again.
The process was loooooooooong.
I’d been filming the whole process but was tugged on the Russian border by security personnel who stood over me whilst I deleted all the video I had taken up to and until the Polish border.
Three hours later, we were in Russia finally. The heat had kicked but luckily I had come prepared – a few cans of London Pride which were dutifully distributed to thirsty characters on the bus. One American character – who I bumped into numerous times in Kaliningrad after – was particularly thankful for the gift,
Just when we thought we were good to go, a final check-point met us just outside Kaliningrad city. This one was like the police who stop coaches just off the motorway en route to away matches – trying to find the rogue unofficial buses not registered with the police as travelling to the game.
These were proper Russian police. And they weren’t messing. One police officer (just one) literally went through the bus checking everybody’s passport and fan ID one by one in another laborious process.
Forty five minutes later we were off – landing at Kaliningrad bus station just after lunch time. A whole three hours behind schedule.
As we arrived, a film crew met us off the bus from Channel 4 and Channel 5. The Channel 5 crew documented my journey from Gdansk to Kaliningrad – via the various checkpoints whereas the Channel 4 piece focussed more on whether the ‘new’ Russia portrayed at this World Cup was all it seemed. And would it ‘revert to type’ after the foreign football fans have left its shores? (you can find the Channel 4 piece by clicking here ).
I have an opinion on this which I expressed briefly on the news piece. Fans are saying – because there have been no racism, homophobia or violence problems in Russia the press was wrong for hyping the trouble. I do not exactly agree with that I have to be honest.
Fact is .. there are serious problems in Russia particularly with football. There is quite hard core extreme right-wing hooligan elements who rule the roost. I personally witnessed them in action in Marseilles. They didn’t come to mess about. The fact that Zenit St Petersburg have a supporters group who openly called for the club to not sign any black or gay players is quite frankly prehistoric.
But for now, let’s focus on the positive. The World Cup has managed to engage the whole of the Russian population. Not just the fans who go to football. And the feeling I get from talking to people is that they are much more open-minded and welcoming than their right-wing football hooligan country-mates.
A quick pop to the phone shop to get a new SIM card to plug into my wireless router. £6 for 15GB of data. What is there not to like about that?
A quick £2 cab journey (I see fares have gone up in Kaliningrad) and we’re in Victory Square. It’s lunch time and we spent the afternoon in a restaurant in the sunshine hanging with Troops and Ty from Arsenal Fan TV.
As the afternoon went on, there was interesting incident with the guy on the next table. He was from Latvia and was literally all over us. Well built – probably an ex-soldier but I dont want to generalise – with tattoos all over both arms. Chelsea tattoos. He was fascinated with Troopz and wanted a photograph with him and his Arsenal flag.
This guy was so excited to see us. Just like every other local who we had met. Brimming with excitement to talk to us and fraternise in general.
In the mean time, I clocked a tatto (or a load of tattoos) on this character which was not too clever. All of a sudden I was a little more weary of him.
I whispered to Troopz “Just to give you a heads up … this guy is a nazi” I said to him.
“How you know that” Troopz asked.
“Because he has a load of swastikas tatted on his arm. Not one or two. But a load”
A few minutes later, the guy and his petite girlfriend left the table and bid us farewell.
There’s more to this story that I may go into in a separate article which I will probably call “The man with the Nazi tattoos”.. or maybe I’ll post it on my Facebook page. Depending on how England get on against Columbia. But for now, I’ll move on.
Elizaveta was my host in Volgograd. Anna was my host in Kaliningrad and was proving to be a little bit more elusive – due to a hectic work schedule but we eventually go into our accommodation in time for the evening celebrations.
Germany had just been eliminated by South Korea so tonight was going to be a good night regardless. Obi – who enjoyed his VIP ride to Russia – and Puns .. one of my Brentford crew – who flew in from Denmark – created the full compliment as we headed back to Victory Square after checking in for a full-on night of merriment. The Belgian fans and the English fans were all celebrating together – wishing the German fans a safe flight home singing in unison
I also was chuffed to have hooked up with Oliver – a Belgium fan who basically sold me 4 tickets to the opening match of Euro 2000 (Belgium v Sweden) and who I hadn’t seen since he sold me those tickets 18 years ago.
Football brings people together. It’s a cliche. But it’s true.
We were joined by The Blades – Reg & Marc – and Supes (another Brentford fan) and we headed down to Victory Square to meet Phil and Paul – all who got the early morning checkpoint express bus – and Marcus the Leeds fan.
Victory Square was the centre of fan activity. There was an unofficial split. The Belgians took over the actually square. Whereas the English took over the bar and grass area across the road.
Seems fair enough to me.
The atmosphere was tremendous and Obi was surely on a record for the most photographs taken in a day with locals.
Last count – 847.
The locals were loving it. Some were shaking with excitement as they lined up to take photos with the England fans – and particularly Obi.
The English were loving it.
Lots of singing.
The atomic kitten “Whole Again”Gareth Southgate song was starting to get a bit of traction.
“Looking back at when we first met
I cannot escape and I cannot forget
Southgate you’re the one
You still turn me on
Football’s coming home again”
The “Drinking all yer vodka. England’s going all the way” song was also starting to get some traction.
All we needed was for England to get past the first knockout match and I can see these songs going into orbit – and not dying never leaving the country the tournament was held in like the “Wayne Rooney Superbock” song from Portugal 2004 and the “Dont Cry for Me Argentina” song from Japan 2002.
We met a plethora of characters today including Brentford CEO Mark Devlin – who was on a day trip with Mike Sullivan – and Ayal the Liverpool fan from Yakuta in Siberia and his crew. The Yakuta crew’s knowledge of football was on a Richard Osman Pointless Level of geekery. They were a top bunch of lads and they talked about coming to London – Brentford more precisely – to experience standing on the terraces.
As England had named a completely different team to the last match – 8 changes – expectations to win this match were not particularly high. And Januzaj excellent strike separated the sides in the end to send Belgian fans to Kazan whereas England had the slightly easier journey – and some may say the easier path to the final – to Moscow.
A one nil loss then. But still celebrations from the England fans.
Unlike exactly four years ago, we were still in the game.
A long night ensued which culminated in the tournament tradition of finding a bar called “Sky Bar” and ending up in there till 6 O’Clock in the morning.
The journey back was not without drama. We opted for Obi’s VIP limo with Sergey picking us up to drop us back to Gdansk. Security checkpoints were long once again and we literally caught our flight home by the skin of our teeth.
But we didn’t mind.
We were already plotting up the next part of the adventure.
A few days rest at home and we were back again.
This time Moscow.
Come on England
*** 13.00 Columbia matchday. Hurriedly posted. more photos and videos to be added later ****
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