Russian Roulette?

Some people asked us if our blog was all over, well it was, but due to a teeny bit of friendly hassle we have decided to revive it one more time!

It was Wednesday 20th June and we were at Royal Ascot with friends from Cheltenham and Norfolk. It was a great day’s racing and I got a couple of big winners (and that came in handy given what was to unfold). Whilst I was having a drink, with my good friend’s Drew and Galton and I uttered a classic Andy Payne one liner ‘I can’t stand watching England on TV, I am going to go to Russia’. As soon as I said it, I knew I had to go and knew I had probably opened my mouth too quickly and too early, not for the first time in my life!

When Russia was announced as the venue for the World Cup, I had instantly decided to give it a swerve. All the talk of violence did not help and I thought my England away days were behind me. But this team, this manager and the few England fans out in Russia meant that a special atmosphere was building.

So that was it. A drunken promise, next stop Russia. I had said to Kirsty on the morning of the Belgium game that I was going to go, no matter whether England got past the last 16 or not. That night we lost 1-0 and I jumped on the FIFA website and after about 5 hours, I landed 2 tickets for the quarter final in Samara. The risk was that England would lose their game against Colombia and we would be supporting either Colombia, Sweden or Switzerland.

But following England has always been a very big risk. Kirsty focused on flights and hotels and by 5am Friday morning we were all sorted. All that had to happen was for England to get past Colombia.

Kirsty contacted me on the day of the Colombian game and said we had been invited around to our friends’ house in the village. My general rule is that I don’t do England or West Ham on TV unless I am on my own. But Kirsty persuaded me to accept and we watched the game with Sally and Chris and had a great night. And what a game!

The next day we left the UK and went to visit our good friends Dawn and Jon in the south of France. We had already booked a short trip to see them and both of us were determined to visit at least for a couple of days. So we flew from Bristol to Toulouse and hired a car to their house near Carcassonne. We had a great 36 hours with them and their brilliant daughters, Phoebe and Naomi, before setting off at 5am on Friday morning to drive 5 hours to Lyon.

From Lyon we flew to Moscow. Luckily we had done our research and got our FAN ID cards which grant a visa to enter Mother Russia.

The Aeroflot flight was great, although the stewards were more like security guards given the propensity for fellow passengers to not follow inflight announcements.

Getting into Russia was hilarious. My passport carries a picture of me in my bearded Taliban state. The passport control officer at Sheremetyevo Airport actually laughed when she saw my picture. ‘That bodes well’, I chuckled to myself.

We picked up our tickets for the Sweden game from the FIFA collection desk and grabbed a couple of Russian SIM cards too. We managed to get slightly spivved off by a Russian bloke who persuaded us to get a taxi into the city. We needed to pick up our FAN IDs and the address seemed to be at Spartak Moscow’s ground. So our taxi needed to go there, drop us off, wait until we got our FAN IDs. The instructions I had were specific….’The FAN ID distribution center is located at: 73, Volokolamskoye Highway, Moscow (Москва, Волоколамское шоссе, д. 73). You can get to the FAN ID distribution center as follows: from the Tushinskaya subway station (Tagansko-Krasnopresnenskaya line), along the even-numbered side of Tushinskaya Square, walk to the Volokolamskoye Highway. Then, to the right, along the odd-numbered side of the Volokolamskoye Highway, to street number 73. The Distribution Center is located on the other side of the entrance to the SDM Center’.

The problem was that the cab driver didn’t really understand the English instructions, so it turned into a proper caper! I got dropped off at Spartak’s ground only to find everything closed up. There was a print out on the door of the FAN ID centre which gave some instructions .

I showed that to the cabbie and he then took off at speed. Traffic in and around Moscow is heavy to say the least. The FAN ID place closed at 8pm and it was now 7.25pm. Precisely 30 mins later we arrived at our destination. Hilariously it was a stone’s throw from where I had been dropped originally! The ID centre was very efficient and the staff very polite and professional. We had made it with 5 mins to spare and both had our FAN IDs and our tickets. Phew!

The cabbie then drove us into Moscow itself to The Budapest Hotel. What a great old grand place that was! As we were soon to realise metal detectors accompanied by signs saying ‘No Guns’ are on the doors of most hotels. The staff were great and the room was amazing. Old, yes, but crazily magnificent.

We went out to watch Brazil vs Belgium and found a bar near Red Square. It was great. There were a load of Colombian fans supporting Brazil and spirits were good. We got a couple of great Pizzas and some Russian beers. I am a Pizza snob. If you don’t have the right dough and a Pizza oven, forget it. This place had both.

We then did a bit of a walk around the area into Red Square, which is very impressive indeed, took pictures of the Kremlin and all the rest. A couple of Russian lads jumped three lads with Brazilian, Belgium and French flags and it seemed like the police let them get away with it. Other than that there was no trouble at all. The streets around Red Square were chokker and it seemed like plenty of Russians of all ages were enjoying the atmosphere, all be it in varying states of inebriation!

We turned in about 1.30am and had to be up at 4am to get our flight to Samara.

The hotel gave us a breakfast box each, which was incredibly sweet of them, given we were missing the restaurant opening. The cab driver, like most people spoke no English. He seemed to know where we were going this time to the airport south west of Moscow Vnukovo and dropped us in what looked like a scene from Shaun of the Dead. It was 5am, the sun has just risen and everyone was trailing bags behind them across rubble and into a very old USSR style airport.

We had to line up to check in and whilst doing this Kirsty witnessed a mother dish out a proper belting to her daughter, who must have been about 20yrs old. The Russians seem to be a no nonsense people, and life does seem pretty tough. No one batted an eyelid!

Our flight was at 7.20am so we had time to kill. The breakfast box came in very handy indeed. Another thing I noticed was a kids’ play area which was being prepared to be opened. The lady was laying out all the toys and a huge train set. Kirsty said to me ‘that won’t last five minutes when the kids arrive’. About an hour later, the kids did arrive. All of them were playing nicely with each other, and one boy was playing so precisely with the huge train set it made me smile. Clearly an engineer in the making. Everywhere you go in Russia, children are at the centre. They are really well behaved and incredibly polite. We could learn a thing or two from Russian society.

When we got to Samara we were greeted by a load of Russian lads in English football shirts – Spurs purple away, Forest white away and Port Vale home kit!! I have no idea what that was all about.

We took a cab to our hotel, the Angel Hotel, which didn’t look great on Google Maps to be honest, but beggars can’t be choosers! How wrong we were. The staff were amazing and the hospitality wonderful. We were treated kindly all the way. We put our heads down for an hour and then hit town. We shared a cab with some Chinese girls who were there to watch and support England. Two of them had full length Adidas football socks on! We had a great chat with them in the cab and Kirsty managed to impress said ladies by recalling the tale of my OBE day at Buckingham Palace as they were huge British Monarchy fans. This was after I had shown them both my Spain 82 World Cup tattoo. Lord only knows what these Chinese thought of us.

We got dropped off by the beach and walked along the front. I have to say the statues and the architecture were hugely impressive. Samara was once the centre of the Soviet Union’s space industry and to prevent knowledge leaking out, it was a closed city. There are statues of Sputniks, Cosmonauts and Soyuz rockets all over the place and it really appealed to my inner 7 year old NASA space fan boy.

We took a pacey stroll along the promenade and up into town to meet up with our mate Shane a fellow veteran of many England away days. After 35 mins walk we finally met them in the Czech Duck, a little bar in the centre of town. The walk was really pleasant, it was a hot day and there were virtually no people anywhere. It felt like we were walking through a film set…

The Czech Duck was great. Lovely staff again and good food and drink. Shane’s lot were all in good spirits. All pretty much my age, not an England shirt to be seen.

We had a great time, plenty of laughter and FaceTimed Jon and Dawn who’s party was in full swing. Shane, Jon and I had spent an hilarious few days at Euro 2004 in Seville, and yes the championships were actually held in Portugal. It was pre social media and Google Maps and we literally could never find our hotel or our way out of Seville. On match day, we drove to Lisbon, without a map. I figured if we followed the sea all the way to Albufeira and turn right and head north we would get there. We called Jon’s wife Dawn up en route when we got lost and she talked us through using her atlas, from Manchester.

Kirsty had been chatting to a Russian guy at the bar, she doesn’t speak a word of Russian and he didn’t speak a word of English but somehow they managed to communicate and just before leaving he came over and delivered Kirsty a cocktail that he’d bought her, so hospitable! We ended up leaving the bar a bit later than we planned and took the shuttle bus to the Samara stadium. It’s a long old way but the stadium is pretty futuristic. Think Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome meets Blade Runner. Most of you will have seen the game. The loudest chants were from the Russian fans with their ‘Rus. Il ia’ chants which sound like ‘Bra Zil Ya’ to the uninitiated. I have never been more relaxed watching England and that was despite Jordan Pickford pulling off two great saves that Gordon Banks would have been proud of ! We met David, a lovely man from Florida who was the same age as me, although he had only done seven World Cups. He had been at the Belgium vs Brazil match in Kazan the night before and just loved watching as many World Cup games as he could . Lovely bloke. Here’s a picture of David before the England vs Croatia game.

We played the game out, the players showed their gratitude to the fans and Gareth Southgate allowed himself to let rip and all was well. The PA played ‘It’s Coming Home’, ‘All You Need is Love’ which was our wedding entrance song, and ‘Wonderwall’. All was well.

As soon as the final whistle blew, Kirsty and I started thinking about the next leg. We needed to cancel our flights from Samara to Moscow to Helsinki to London and get as much cash back as we could. Our mobiles were low on charge and we needed to get back to our hotel which was north of the stadium, whereas the city centre was south of the stadium. So all the free transport laid on by the city was actually useless to us. Getting a cab was nigh on impossible and it was as a three hour walk to our hotel. At times like these you have to think out of the box. I flagged down a car offered him 1,000 Roubles (about £10) and asked the driver if he could take us to the Angel Hotel. He agreed and seemed to know exactly where he was going. He introduced himself and told he was a Tartar, there were 7 million of them in Russia and they were Muslim. He was another driver who only knew one speed. Ridiculously fast! As we were hurtling along at 100kph, he then asked if he could do a selfie with us. I said yes of course, thinking he would do that when we arrived at the hotel. Without further ado, our crazy Tartar then put his phone up, smiled and took about 10 selfies, at full speed. What a character !

We got back safe and sound and totally exhausted. Lack of sleep, nervous energy and dehydration plus the tension of getting these flights cancelled in time meant there was no post match wind down. Quite the reverse!

We duly got the flights cancelled, all be it without a 100% refund, and then watched the Russia vs Croatia game in the bar with a mad West Ham fan and loads of Russians who insisted buying me, not Kirsty, loads of Vodka shots. It was a tense game, and we really felt for the Russians who pulled the game back from the brink only to lose out cruelly on penalties. By the time the game finished it was 1am and we were totally bushed.

We decided to get an early night and focus on getting our transport, hotels and most importantly our semi final tickets in the morning.

We overslept somewhat and got on the case on all fronts. By now various mates we in touch all wanting to know about how they could get tickets. What felt like a million WhatsApp groups were pinging and everything was frenzied. One of my school mates, Dom, who now lives in South Africa has decided to come. We managed to screw up booking our hotels in the frenzy and Kirsty managed to get the hotel to contact and honour the deal. We booked our trains only to find out that bookings would not be confirmed until ‘office hours’,’ whatever they were! We had our iPhones and iPads on the FIFA website constantly to get our tickets through a legit source. Dom was doing the same as was Keith another friend driving back from London. I managed to get through, got all the way to check out only find that Visa had sent me a code by text. Trouble was my phone SIM was a Russian one so the text message obviously did not get to me. I needed something to get the SIM out with. This was worse than watching England take penalties and as soon as I took my Russian SIM out, I would lose my connection and thus the tickets! By the time I had run downstairs to reception to get a huge pin, the application had timed out!!! 30 minutes later Kirsty got in, and we had 3 more tickets in our shopping basket. I’ve never seen Kirsty so nervous as she put her details into the site. She was holding one index finger with another as she typed it all in as her hands were shaking so much! Eventually we got to the confirmation page, and then it asked for some PIN code which Kirsty had never had!! Once again we were foiled !!

By this time Dom had managed to get two singles for him and Keith. Meanwhile other mates were getting frustrated by the FIFA site and tempers were fraying!! Another hour went past and we had both lost energy and I was already looking at other ‘sources’ for our tickets. Then suddenly Kirsty shouted ‘I’m in!’. And so the process started again. The same tension mixed with frustration. She got to then end again only to be booted out for some other random reason.

So three times we had got through only to fall at the final hurdle….

I had made progress with other options and decided we would go to the stadium when we got to Moscow and graft for some tickets. It was 5.45pm, we had eaten and drunk nothing and felt pretty cheated, but I had had years of this.

You just have to keep trying every which way. Just as we were about to leave to go into town, Kirsty said she would try one more time and noticed that there was a note of a successful request in her FIFA account. We did a double take, WhatsApp ed Dom and asked him to share his successful transaction and after about 20 mins agreed it looked like we had bought two tickets after all. But we were not 100% certain.

So I said to Kirsty we should get to the ticket collection point in Samara as soon as possible and get them.

We got another crazy taxi driver just as the heavens opened and we were treated to a colossal storm. That made no difference to the driver who pelted around Samara at top speed whilst on his mobile… you literally couldn’t see a hand in front of your face. We found the collection office deep inside a random shopping mall and the driver waited.

A quick visit to the office, we got the tickets safely in our hands, despite the Russian guards demanding I deleted all of the pictures I took inside the office, and we were back in the cab and off to celebrate!

It was 7.45pm, the sun was going down on Samara and all was well. We found a great bar with great music right on the river Volga, watched the sunset and enjoyed the moment. I had also fixed up some other mates with tickets so all in all it was another hell of a day! Beer and neat vodkas were consumed and we slept like babies after a day of hard graft where the hotel room was turned into a war office, hours and hours of tactical manoeuvres and we’d won this skirmish… onwards and upwards to the next battle in Moscow!

Tomorrow we travel back to Moscow, by train for 17 hours, Kirsty was talking to the hotel receptionist and saying that if you travelled on a train for 17 hours in the UK you’d end up in the sea, he looked at her and said that he had a Russian train journey once that last 7 days….. the adventure continues!


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