Now into my third tournament following England, this was the furthest we had progressed. As I took the 3 hour flight to one of the lesser known host cities, Samara, I started imagining the now believable moment where we could actually win the World Cup and I literally began crying tears of happiness. Never in my life had football captured my imagination and passion as it was during this tournament. Instead of going home to watch other teams battle out the latter stages, we were finally here. And best of all, we had a great chance of progressing as we were favourites to beat the Swedes.
Upon arrival, I jumped straight in a taxi. Once again the weather was beautiful as we moved towards the centre of Russia. Relying purely on the knowledge of my driver, we meandered slowly around some particularly dilapidated buildings in search of my hostel. Once found, the hostel was fairly basic with limited English being spoken. Samara on first impressions seemed exactly what I expected as a typical Soviet city.
I grabbed a quick nap and woke to the beautiful sight of my good buddy Glyn asleep in the dorm, back together to join me for the full matchday experience for the first time. Glyn had the intriguing idea of going in fancy dress for the big game, not something I usually do but I was more than happy to go along with the idea. Glyn had already picked up a white top hat and cane, and after a quick Google search we went into the city in search of face paint. Sadly, we failed miserably.
The next logical step was to locate a watering hole. Walking past banks and offices, we weren’t filled with joy, so I suggested checking out the river while we were close by. Based on all our preconceptions of the town we were not terribly excited, but to our great surprise, as we came across the Mighty River Volga for the third time in this tournament, we were met with quite a stunning surprise. The banks of the river were effectively a beautiful sandy beach full of people sunbathing late into the summer evenings. A lovely, tranquil promenade dotted with couples and families enjoying the peace. We wandered down to a huge restaurant boat and soaked up the relaxing views in what was a wonderfully romantic atmosphere. I’ll settle for Glyn. What a time to be alive. Life is good, Samara has already exceeded expectations, and still two more days until the biggest game of my life.
On the day before the quarter-final, we blinded the sightseers by baring our reflective torsos for a stroll along the beautiful beach, covered with locals enjoying the afternoon sun. Later in the day we returned to the best bar in town, where the night before we had met a few entertaining Swedes and reserved a table for the first two quarter-finals. The beers flowed as France and Belgium dispatched Uruguay and Brazil respectively. Seeing the Swedes again, we asked them if they wanted to join us but their fan association had planned to all meet in the club across the road. It’d be rude not to join them. By now we’d met up with Welsh Jon and made friends with many new people throughout the evening, so there was no surprise the drinking and dancing went on until the sun came up.
Alarms missed and still pretty drunk, we jumped out of bed knowing we had to get straight to the stadium. We popped on the fancy dress and off we went hoping to grab some food on arrival. It was clear while approaching the stadium that we were again facing a sea of yellow fans. All the Swedes seemed to be organised and walking together in huge groups, with the odd England fan dotted around. Obviously with our simple hats and canes, we stood out amongst the average Russian. As per usual the locals were being incredibly enthusiastic and friendly. Then began the requests for photographs; it was great to interact with the locals and by now I was praising Glyn’s choice.
Despite the entertainment, we were making little progress because people were literally queuing up for photos. The majority of these guys had probably never met English people before, so this was an enjoyable experience for them. Time came to remove the hats though so we could actually get into the stadium. The party atmosphere continued as I took my seat, again behind the goal opposite the England fans. As the game began, I felt quietly confident and already tipsy as a couple of pre-match beers had topped up last night’s intake.
It only took half an hour for England to assert their dominance, as yet again we scored a headed goal from a corner. This time Harry Maguire powered a header into the bottom corner, which sent me dancing into the aisle shouting and waving my cane manically. Half-time came and there was no way I could sit amongst the Russians whilst I could see thousands of England fans at the other end, so I made my way over and snuck in for the second half. The security was mainly made up of young friendly people, so when they asked to see my ticket, I just politely made excuses, pleaded ignorance and stood with the others without any dramas – if only they were so nice on the trains. There was no way I was missing out on standing with the England fans for the second half. And it was all well worth it when, shortly before the hour, Dele Alli neatly tucked in another header at the back post. Job done. Queue more wild celebrations that continued non-stop until the final whistle.
Post-game a few fans filtered away, but the majority of the England faithful continued singing and celebrating with the players and Gareth Southgate, our manager and the most popular man in England right now! There was a genuine connection between fans and players which is something that had been lost for many years. A truly great moment to experience.
‘Looking back on where we first met, I cannot escape and I cannot forget. Southgate you’re the one, you still turn me on, football’s comin’ home again!’
This was probably sung for the next 45 minutes, with a few other ditties thrown in. By this time Glyn had rejoined me to sing and celebrate with the others.
Absolutely buzzing, we made our way into town in search of somewhere to watch Russia take on Croatia. The game would decide our semi-final opponents, and there were pros and cons to either team winning. We stumbled across a small car park with the match being projected onto the opposite building in a very hipster-style atmosphere. With one car remaining amongst the chairs and tables with a little bar at the back, we sat on the floor at the front and soaked up the moment. Sadly Russia were unable to reproduce their penalty shootout heroics, and their admirable adventure had come to end. Their dream was over.
The long walk back to the metro station sapped us of most of our energy, but at least we finally found some food for the first time in over 24 hours. As we strolled along the beach, Glyn mentioned he hadn’t seen my customary naked picture for this trip. Perfect, great shout Glyn. Let’s have a skinny dip in the Volga. We’d spent the evening with a Peter Crouch lookalike, so he was tasked with filming the unique spectacle of two Englishmen in nothing but top hats dancing in the river, merely adding to the memories of a wonderful day.
The night almost came to an end as the queue for the only club we knew was pretty big. However, I felt guilty as I was supposed to meet up with a buddy who was a Brazilian journalist working for their main sports company. I gave him a quick call and he wanted to meet, so we agreed to join the queue and go in.
‘Come on Glyn, let’s go in for one and say hello.’
Now, I rarely say no to a beer, but if there’s one man who NEVER says no to a beer, it’s Glyn. In we went and before we know it, we were dancing away and chatting with several faces from the previous night who apparently also only knew one club. Thiago finally appeared and the dancing continued until closing as the sun came up. One beer it was not.
Just when it seemed the perfect day was coming to an end, a couple of Swedish guys invited everyone back to their Airbnb. In we jumped to a few taxis, as you do abroad (and after about 15 hours on the beer) you lose all inhibitions and forget about the rules. Singing songs in the taxis, passing vodka from car to car and holding flags between the two. Rather stupid in hindsight as we flew down the road hanging out of the windows at 40mph, much to the pleasure of the drivers. With a fresh stash of beer in our possession the after party began. Singing in the paddling pool will be a memory that will live with me forever. Around 2pm it was time to call it a day, but not before one more bit of drama.
We jumped in a taxi back to town and stopped as someone picked something up. By this time the heat was killing me, I wanted nothing more than my bed and some well-deserved sleep. So even when a car skidded right in front of us, I just didn’t care. When the driver came over shouting in Russian at my open window, I cared a little more but still just wanted to sleep. When he reached in and took our drivers keys out of the ignition and grabbed one of the girls’ phones, I cared a little more. Me and another English friend looked at each other and thought WTF? We had no idea what was happening, nor what we could do to ease the situation. He took the girl out of the taxi, and put her in his car. There wasn’t much I could do other than ‘Errr mate, mate, everything ok?’ as I tapped him on the shoulder. As he started to pull away, I left them to it and got back in our taxi. Apparently, it was her ex-boyfriend begging for another chance. Interesting to see the Russian approach to that – essentially kidnap.
Anyway, another day, another adventure. It was time for me to sleep and rest after what may possibly have been the best day of my life, shared with a great friend – that bond getting stronger by the day. Now for the dilemma!!! Should I stay or should I go??