By now, the majority of groups had been completed and the teams for the second round were beginning to take shape. Due to a few upsets and surprises, there was a clearly defined ‘easier’ side to the draw. For England to be on the more favourable side, we were in the strange position of preferring a defeat against Belgium in our final group game in Kaliningrad.
After a few fairly chilled days in Moscow, it was time to try out the FIFA trains again having learnt from my previous errors. Doesn’t mean I won’t mess up in some other way though does it? The night before the big journey, I shared a few beers with my new friend Jon, a rather interesting character who was working as a journalist here. Reporting on the treatment of the Romany community prior to the World Cup, he also had a role monitoring any discrimination in the stadiums. We met in Volgograd and agreed to meet for some food and a catch up. As always, this is never so simple, especially when a young Russian barman took a fancy to him and free drinks were flowing until the sun came up. Joined by various random people throughout the evening, it was very entertaining, if not very wise.
On arriving home, I decided that sleeping on the cold hard floor was the best way to make sure I heard my alarms for the train at 11am. I can categorically let you know that this is not an effective method. Waking up an hour late, it left me about 30 minutes to do a 40-minute journey. After a mad panic checking trains and possible solutions, I just thought I’d get to the station and deal with it. The train was long gone by the time I arrived, but the helpful staff helped me book on the 3pm, so a 4 hour wait in the sun and I was ready to roll. Hardly seamless but definitely my smoothest train journey to date – I’m improving.
Once aboard, I was greeted with a nice young Russian man, Egor, who again spoke perfect English. This ended up being a godsend throughout the numerous border crossings into Belarus and Lithuania, before returning to the annexed region of Russia that is Kaliningrad. We had the four-bed cabin to ourselves and a tranquil 21-hour train journey ensued.
It was actually a nice break to have no wi-fi, barely any chatting, and a break from the daily drinking. Leaving the train I actually felt reasonably refreshed. I jumped in a taxi to my hostel where I shared a twin room with a huge Russian man in his 40s.
Within seconds it was clear that Yevgeny was a happy, friendly bloke who clearly loved his football and vodka. From a small town close to the city, he bought tickets for all games in Kaliningrad and with this being the last one, he was ready for a good time. In honour of our new friendship, he pulled out a bottle of berry flavoured Belarusian vodka. We had a ‘welcome’ shot, another as we talked, and then a final one for the road. Then we talked some more and had another shot for the road. So, after my drink-free day, things had quickly returned to normal and I was already lightly drunk as I wandered into town to catch up with Joe, another friend from Euro 2016.
A couple of beers and a sing-song had us nicely ready for a rather surreal game. The atmosphere didn’t have the intensity of previous games, as neither team cared greatly about the result. Two much-changed sides played out an uneventful game in which Adnan Januzaj scored a lovely goal as Belgium took the spoils. Belgium were happy as they kept momentum and England were happy as we apparently had an easier route to the final. The dream was on – every team in our half was beatable. The culmination of Group H later that evening meant we would be facing the challenge of Colombia in the next round, a team we hadn’t faced since a 3-0 win in France 20 years earlier.
Returning from the stadium, I got chatting to a lovely bloke called Vitali. He invited me for some beers in town, so we had a good chat and once again it was a pleasure to be amongst such a lovely bunch of people. I saw my first incident of violence in my time here, but this was just a standard drunken bar fight that was quickly settled with a timely police intervention. An interesting discussion came after this altercation, as another young lad we met was asking where all the England fans were. My answer; simply that many were too scared of Russians to make the journey. A thought which after a couple of weeks here seemed almost laughable, and an alien concept to those unaware of events in 2016, which was the majority of people. It was actually quite embarrassing to admit to them that our nation had been so easily manipulated and scared by media and a lack of trust. My only defence was that I was one of those who made the journey.
Before I knew it, I was on the train back to Moscow for another 21 hours. No dramas this time as I shared the cabin with two fellas from Carlisle, who helped me through the journey by watching both full series of The Office.