With Russia being the biggest country in the world, there were some incredible distances to travel between games. In this regard, Russia and FIFA pulled an absolute blinder and provided a limited amount of free trains between Moscow and host cities on the days before and after games. All you had to do was book your place, bring your match ticket, Fan ID and some identification.
Nizhny Novgorod was a relatively close match in Russian terms. The train was due to leave at midnight and arrive early in the morning, giving plenty of time to get in the mood for the 2 o’clock kick-off versus Panama. Having done a little research on Nizhny, I decided not to stay and instead head back on the train a few hours after the game, so off I went to the station with only a few essentials for the day.
Aaaand here’s where it all started to get interesting. I headed excitedly towards the platform, singing to myself and filming little videos as I searched for my carriage.
Train Lady: ‘Здравствуйте. Ticket?’
Me: ‘Here you go.’
Train Lady: ‘Fan ID?’
Me: ‘Here you go.’
Train Lady: ‘Passport?’
Me: ‘Erm, well I’ve got a copy…’
And this is where it all went downhill. Seemingly a trip from Russia to, errr, Russia, couldn’t be completed without a passport. I had the sympathy of the volunteers, but not of Train Lady. Calls were made. I begged and I pleaded as politely as I could. This is really where I needed a little ‘Barraco’. One volunteer gave me the nod to get on, but this was closely followed by a lady aggressively shouting in Russian. One thing I didn’t come to Russia to do was upset the authorities so off I popped again. Finally, a man came down from head office, took a look at me, took a look at my mangled passport copy and provided the final nail in the coffin: ‘NYET.’ Seconds later the doors were closing, and the train slowly pulled away from the platform. 10 minutes frantic discussion was now replaced with silence as the train disappeared and the crowd wandered back up the platform. In frustration and disbelief, I let out the biggest scream I could. What next!!??
I was assured that if I got back to Adam’s place and grabbed my passport, I could maybe get back for the 2am train from a different station – IF there was space. In a mad rush I headed there first to check availability, but while waiting there was a man hovering around.
Shady Looking Russian: ‘I drive you to Nizhny. 2000 Rubles.’
At this point I didn’t care about cost; I just needed a guaranteed route to Nizhny. Fortunately, there were a few other stragglers, all with their own different stories. We set off an hour or so later once the bus was full. Luckily, I grabbed the back seat and lay down. Less luckily, Boris the driver thought mega loud music was what the people wanted. His size and our lack of Russian meant we just let him get on with it.
Around 8 in the morning we arrived feeling like crap, but better late than never as they say. Already by 8.30am I was dripping with sweat due to the ridiculous humidity as I headed in search of any accommodation that would let me recuperate for a few hours inside and grab a shower. As always in Russia, this was easy to find. They probably saw the state of me and couldn’t refuse. Sadly, it was the horrible type of humidity where you never actually dry out after a shower. But anyway, a short rest and off I went to meet some friends, grab some beers in town, and prepare for the game.
The Panama fans absolutely lit up the stadium! Thousands of them had crossed the world for their first World Cup and the greatest occasion in their sporting history. The atmosphere was bubbling, we were confident after an impressive performance vs Tunisia, and Panama hadn’t shown too much to fear against Belgium. Results elsewhere meant a win and we would be through with a game to spare. The only issue I could foresee was the humidity as having been in Panama, this was perfectly normal.
This possibility was comprehensively dismissed when John Stones put England ahead with only 8 minutes gone. Less than 15 minutes later and we were two up after Kane dispatched a penalty emphatically. Feeling more than comfortable now, it wasn’t long before Jesse Lingard popped a world class strike into the top corner and Stones grabbed his second with a brilliantly worked set piece. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better Kane, smashed home another penalty to make it FIVE-NIL at half-time!! WTF!! This is England! Life is never this easy. This simply doesn’t happen to us.
Sat amongst the Russian public for the first half, as much as they enjoyed my celebrations, I had to head around to the England fans and join in the singing. I squeezed in and found a space at half-time. The second half was just a blur of singing and dancing as the players took their feet off the gas and managed to add another solitary goal via a deflection off Kane. In completing his treble, he joined a select group of Englishman to score a hat-trick in a World Cup game, along with Sir Geoff Hurst and Gary Lineker.
Despite such an emphatic victory, the biggest cheer of the day was reserved for one of those special moments that makes the World Cup what it is. With 12 minutes remaining, a free-kick was crossed into the box and turned home by the elder statesman of the Panama side, Felipe Baloy. Cue amazing scenes amongst the Panama fans, who hadn’t stopped singing all day. They came here to Russia with the smallest of hopes and their one wish was to see a goal. Despite the result, no one could ever take THAT MOMENT away from them.
Panamanian celebrations carried on into the town, with an incredible sea of red singing and dancing their way through the streets. Wave after wave of happy, smiley fans continued into town enjoying this great day. The beers flowed, everyone was happy; we were through, they had scored, everyone’s a winner. As the night went on it was time to head back to the train station and negotiate the challenge of boarding my train without a passport. But this time I was determined, fuelled by several pints and followed by thousands of England fans, I fancied my chances.
Again my memories of this are slightly vague, but after a brief discussion I was on the train. Learning from previous mistakes, I headed straight for the toilet, but seconds later…BANG BANG BANG. More aggressive Russian was shouted through the door…but I had a plan…You can’t throw me out if I’m actually going to the toilet, so I took my seat and continued the argument. The shouts got louder and I got a little more scared so tried my luck. I opened the door with my pants round my ankles, hoping this would suffice for them to have pity on this helpless man and give up the chase, but without even flinching the lady shouted clearly at me….
‘WRONG TRAIN! WRONG TRAIN! NO MOSCOW!
Pants pulled up, I darted across the platform to where she was pointing and jumped on a train which left seconds later. Nervously looking for somewhere to hide, I popped my head in a cabin and found a friendly Russian fella who thankfully spoke English. Above the door is a sizeable luggage compartment which he instructed me to enter. Some time passed and he gave me the call that the coast was clear and invited me to join him and his friends for some noodles and beer, a Russian tradition for train travel.
We had a great chat and the hours flew by. I’m not quite sure who initiated it, but the journey ended with a ceremonial shirt swap. My O’Regan No 10 Trafford United shirt is now proudly being worn somewhere in Russia, whilst I had picked myself up a lovely Russia shirt just in time for their next fixture. I love it when a plan comes together. Safely back in Moscow, I was certainly looking forward to a good sleep before we go again the next day.