Due to its northern location, I had just got used to the almost eternally light summer nights of St Petersburg. So I was already enjoying the beautiful weather Russia had to offer, against every stereotype I ever had in my mind. Arriving at Volgograd airport I had another shock – temperatures were again a hot and dry 30 degrees. I had taken this leg of the trip as an opportunity to try out couchsurfing and my host, the lovely Liubov, had arranged for me to meet her friend Andrew at the train station. On meeting him, I was greeted by a young man who had never left Russia in his life but spoke perfect English. He expressed a love of all things British, above all his love of football. He even openly admitted not really liking the Russian team, saying he was a bigger fan of England. For him it was an honour and a pleasure to show me around, which made him a great guide.
We headed straight to the fan zone for the evening’s matches and to finally mingle with some England fans. Situated right on the bank of the mighty River Volga, there was a huge screen at the bottom of 100 or so steps leading up to a beautiful plaza. In its own right this was a lovely little spot, but pop in a bar, an enormous footy screen and some bright sunshine, I couldn’t think of anywhere I’d rather be. We watched a win for Serbia followed by Mexico upsetting Germany, before Brazil were held by Switzerland. As the games finished, the music started blaring like a proper nightclub and I thought this would be turning into a good night.
My host had other ideas though. She turned around to say: ‘Well Andrei (her boyfriend, not my guide) starts work at 5am, so let’s head back.’ 35 minutes driving later and we were back in their district. I was advised against going out after dark, so I was immediately thinking about the next day and how I was going to make the best of this situation. Back at the one room apartment I had a sleeping bag and a yoga mat on the floor at the bottom of the bed, and I was tucked up fast asleep by midnight; not quite what I had in mind.
The next day I made a few calls before I left the apartment and got in touch with my reliable friend Kieron. Despite feeling incredibly rude for turning down the next day of hospitality which I had kindly been offered, I needed the freedom to come and go as I please, thus came the end of my couchsurfing adventure.
I packed my bags and set out to find Kieron. He was with good ol’ Geordie John, reunited 4 years after that great day in Manaus in a little known and perfectly situated hostel just above the fan zone. Relaxing before the carnage in my own bed, listening to these two passionately arguing about trivial things and giving homemade haircuts, it was great to be back amongst people whose only care in the world was getting drunk and watching tonight’s game.
After a little stress and guilty feeling of moving, I could finally get in the zone and head to the fan zone for our first beer. We met up with Andrew again, who ended up being gifted a Man City shirt due to his love of England and Manchester. As well as this, he was so excited to be heading to watch his beloved England in his home city, something he could only ever have dreamed of. The day continued as we hopped from bar to bar, pint after pint, as the excitement was really starting to sink in. I was about to watch the Three Lions up close in my second World Cup; by now, any fears of violence and not being welcome couldn’t have seemed further from the truth.
On entering the stadium, I was a little intoxicated to say the least. On a positive note, this gave me the Dutch courage to walk straight into the England end, rather than my randomly allocated seat. Here I was, sat just 6 or 7 rows from the net, admittedly in a fairly sparsely populated crowd – media propaganda had won! As always, up popped Kieron who had neatly smuggled in a coke bottle filled with vodka. Due to my over-enthusiasm and ability to massively over-drink when excited, I had a little more than necessary.
As the game got underway the, songs started belting out. Some songs were new to me, but it didn’t take long until they were ingrained in my head and were not to leave for the next month:
‘We’re on our waaaay, we’re on our way, to the Moscow, we’re on our way. How do we get there? I don’t know. How do we get there? I don’t care. All I know is Englands on their way!!!’
One of those beautiful songs that can be repeated for as long as someone is happy to sing the first line. 5 minutes of this was regularly followed by;
‘Oh oh ohhh, England fans in Russia, oh oh ohh, drinking all your Vodka, oh oh ohhh, England’s going all the waaaay.’
England settled nicely into the game and were playing the better football. From the start it was clear we were the better team. And just 11 minutes in at the far end of the pitch we saw the net bulge and everyone go crazy. What a moment!!! Harry Kane puts us one-nil up in his typical predatory style. The game is ours for the taking, it couldn’t have possibly started any better. All was going well, England were looking comfortable and in control, but then out of nowhere a cross came into our box and Ben Youssef went down softly under a challenge from Kyle Walker. From behind the net I screamed everything in my power to stop the goal, but to no avail as Ferjani Sassi tucked the ball past Jordan Pickford. Which reminds me, I need to check the footage to see what I could have done better for next time.
As the game progressed, England pushed and pushed for the winner and had numerous chances as well as penalty appeals that VAR failed to pick up. But anyone knowing my previous England experience would by now know that games either ended 0-0 or 2-1, and always to the opposition. But today was different. Once again, THAT wonderful moment! As we headed into injury time, Harry Kane turned in a Maguire flick at the far post…aaaannnnd I’d be lying if I could tell you what happened next. There was that much emotion and that much beer and that much vodka that looking back, I don’t actually remember this moment. I know I was there, I know I hugged someone, but that’s about as much as I can visualise. Always the sign of a good day I guess. We played out the remaining few minutes to claim a well-deserved and hard-fought victory and then obviously it was, erm, straight to bed for me.
Despite not making the most of what was a brilliant night of football and celebrations, 9 months of anticipation and excitement had got the better of me and I was too drunk to celebrate my greatest moment in a stadium watching England. An actual VICTORY! It was quite funny to receive messages from home.
‘Finally your curse is over.’
‘That must have been an amazing moment when Kane scored Mart!’
Erm, yeah, I guess it would have been.
After a good long sleep, I set out to see some tourist attractions. The Motherland statue is a truly wonderful site, the tallest in Europe and the tallest of a woman in the world. Standing at a massive 85 metres including the sword, it is placed on top of a hill amongst the Heroes of the Battle of Stalingrad memorial park. Stalingrad being the former name of Volgograd until the demise and death of the infamous leader Joseph Stalin, since when the Russians have ultimately tried to remove him from most forms of memorial. Despite the heat and hangover, it was great to see this peaceful commemoration to all those that died here and gave their lives during WW2. Unfortunately I didn’t have time for the museum – next time maybe. There was time for a very brief meet-up with Andrew though, who kindly presented me with an old school scarf of his team Rotor Volgograd, a really special gift that I will always treasure.
My lasting memories of Volgograd, as well as the football, the incessant bugs down by the river and in the stadium, would have to be the people. Like any great city, it can be defined by its people. There was a general sense of people not enjoying living here, a place with limited wealth and opportunity, but they didn’t complain. Much of the city away from the centre seemed run down and poor, but there was no extreme poverty in sight and in general people seemed to have ‘enough’, if not much. However, they still proved a pleasure to meet and a joy to share my few days in Volgograd with. Off to Moscow now though!!