The time finally came to begin the trip. I managed to meet up with some friends at a stag do in the centre of Manchester, before catching the bus to London. Once again, I heard the familiar phrases ‘you’re mad Mart,’ ‘stay outta trouble pal.’ Not one single person was jealous. On the contrary, they were fearful for my safety and looking forward to watching from the safety of their own home, or the unity of a local bar.
20 or so hours later I was stepping off the plane onto Russian soil for the first time. Nervously at customs I handed over my Fan ID, hoping that I hadn’t misread the small print and that it did indeed count as a visa for Russia. All went rather smoothly and I was happy to meet my friend Ksenia in arrivals. Off we went on the bus into town, but not before I very quickly made my first mistake of greeting the senior woman selling tickets with the very informal ‘Privyet’. Looks like it’s ‘Zdravstvuyte’ from now on then. Simples.
Day one went smoothly enough and by day two, wandering around the beautiful city it very quickly became clear that I wasn’t going to be hunted in the streets by the local people as I had been warned. That was the first fear out of the way. In fact, it felt very much like any European city that we travel to year after year without any concern for safety, a reassuring start.
With it being such a touristic city, there was a good level of English spoken wherever I went. There were some incredibly impressive buildings, many placed on the banks of the Neva River or amongst the beautiful canal network, but my favourite of all was the wordy Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. As with all Russian Orthodox churches, this would look completely out of place in the majority of European cities, and the wonderfully colourful temple really got me interested in what more beauty lay ahead in this country.
Who am I kidding? The real reason it was my favourite may just have been due to the fact it was overlooking the fan zone, the heart and soul of most World Cup host cities. With such happy memories of the 2014 opening ceremony, I set off on my way to the fan zone hoping there was still space for me inside. En route I began to notice just how many people simply didn’t seem to care about the World Cup. Over the first day or so, the only party atmosphere was bought by the two teams playing their opening games in St Petersburg, Iran and Morocco. The majority of people were just going about their daily activities, the metro was not awash with Russian shirts, and as a result I made it into the fan zone with plenty of space to spare.
Russia’s game against Saudi Arabia kicked off with the home fans merely hoping to avoid any form of embarrassment. However, much to their and the visiting fans’ pleasure, it went quite to the contrary. Just 12 minutes in, Yuri Gazinsky picked a fine moment to open his account for the National Team, sending the crowd into raptures. The party continued as the floodgates opened. As each goal was scored, the camera panned to Russian President Vladimir Putin looking over apologetically at the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, to the amusement of the public. Russia added two further goals in injury time to complete a 5-0 drubbing. Now there was a bit of a buzz about the place which was great for all fans, as a successful host nation is key to a great atmosphere. I was hoping this would be the spark needed to capture this ice hockey dominated nation, who had previously lost all faith in their national football team.
Finally, after so much waiting, the World Cup was underway, and the next step for me was to get to a game. With the atmosphere around town building as the fans of Morocco and Iran prepared for their big day, and excited to know that in just a few days it would be my turn, I headed off to the stadium to see if I could find a ticket. This was done easily enough and so I made my way inside, thankfully the different ticket name and Fan ID name not causing any issues.
I found my seat in an incredibly vibrant atmosphere, and given my previous friend total of Morocco 1 Iran 0, I had opted to support Morocco. Both anthems were sung with passion, loud music was played either side to get the blood pumping, and then the final countdown from 10 finally got the game going. What a pleasure it was to be back amongst a World Cup game; there is nothing quite like the to-ing and fro-ing, the heightened emotions and passionate screams of both sets of fans.
Throughout the game Morocco had played the better football and carved out the clearer chances, but as the game entered the 95th minute they suffered the cruellest blow. A needless free-kick was given away down the Iran left wing. This was whipped in and the hapless Aziz Bouhaddouz turned the ball into his own net to produce scenes of ecstasy and despair amongst the rival fans. There were incredible scenes as Iran claimed their first World Cup victory since 1998, whilst Morocco knew this was pretty much game over given their difficult fixtures ahead.
The elation and celebration continued outside; it was only later I found out it is actually illegal for women to watch matches in stadiums in Iran so this made it particularly poignant for so many of them to witness such a proud moment for their nation.
My time in St Petersburg was coming to a close, and by now I had realised that life in Russia in general wasn’t dangerous. In fact, they had so far seemed to be quite a lovely, accommodating bunch. The mood was starting to build and the stories were starting to flow, the Spain manager shockingly sacked on the eve of their opener, whatever next? I’ll tell ya what’s bloody next – England vs Tunisia, that’s what’s next!