Part of being an utterly hopeless football obsessive means that the World Cup is absolute heaven; ever since immersing myself in Espana 82 while on holiday on the Costa del Sol, I absolutely relish every tournament when it comes round. In many ways I still retain the character traits of that nine-year old boy who found that four weeks of pretty much non-stop football was quite simply the greatest thing imaginable.
Those who have read these pages over the last couple of years will know that this obsession took on a whole new dimension four years ago: when Mrs Football Nerd and I engineered our wedding so that the Brazil World Cup would offer the perfect honeymoon for two people who could think of no better way to spend a week celebrating their nuptials than one filled with: sun, sea, sand, beer … and of course football!
Having had such an unforgettable adventure in South America, despite the warnings of the potential dangers and the political and ethical concerns over the host nation, there was no way we could even contemplate missing out on the 2018 instalment of the greatest football show on earth, so from as soon as it was possible to book flights and hotels and get match tickets, it was Russia here we come!
Saturday 16th of June 2018
The scheduling of our flight at 8:45am meant that it was a very early cab departure from chez Football Nerd, but the excitement that we were both unable to control meant that this didn’t even feel like any hardship. Once checked-in, we headed to the lounge for a free ‘Irish Breakfast’ (read pint of Guinness!) for me and a glass of champagne for the missus.
Upon landing in Moscow we faced the first challenge of our trip in securing a transfer to our hotel. A brief enquiry with a cab driver and a quoted fee of 8,000 Roubles (just under £100), along with a potential two hour journey due to the traffic, saw us take the sensible decision of finding the shuttle train. Even better news followed when we were informed that our Fan-ID with match ticket brought free travel on matchdays in the relevant host city, no matter at all that our tickets were for the match the following day!
Either by the skill of seasoned travellers or more realistically by complete and utter fluke, we managed to negotiate our first experience of the Moscow metro complete with artfully decorated stations, station names in Cyrillic and some of the world’s longest escalators, and find our way to our selected hotel without any major complications.
To picture the Hotel Cosmos, imagine the most imposing, curved, absolutely stereotypical communist-era block you can and then plonk a ginormous statue of Charles De Gaulle (apparently the first post war visitor, in case you were wondering!) outside and you might be somewhere close. If we thought that was bizarre we had seen nothing yet!
An hour‘s wait to check-in for no apparent logical reason was smoothed by a couple of beers and watching, from a distance, Denmark taking on Peru on TV in one of the numerous lobby restaurants. Once we had finally secured our room, unpacked and sorted ourselves out, it was time to head down to the rendez-vous point with our partner in World Cup-obsession and Tranmere Rovers diehard, Paul, our choice, rather obviously, being the eponymously titled ‘Beer-Pub’ just off the lobby, assuming that it did exactly what it said on the tin!
In the interests of protecting the confidentiality of those involved and respecting the old adage of ‘what happens on tour stays on tour’, the evening is best left undescribed after watching Croatia beat Nigeria over a few beers and the obligatory vodka shots; although Mrs Football Nerd somehow ending up in an arm-wrestling challenge with a massive Russian fella called Sergei, was one of the less surreal incidents!
Sunday 17th of June – Germany 0 Mexico 1 – Luzhniki Stadium
When we met up with Paul at breakfast the following morning he assured us that the fourth member of our party, Aussie Glenn, had arrived in the wee small hours, well at least he thought it was Glenn, but there was definitely someone in his room!
After a brief visit to Red Square where the world’s TV studios had been assembled, closing off a major part of it to the public, we headed over the Moskva River to find somewhere for Paul to have something to eat, it having been all of two hours since breakfast, and for the rest of us to have a beer or two.
After our refreshment pit-stop, we headed toward the Luzhniki Stadium in the hope that we would be able to find a bar with a TV to watch Costa Rica – Serbia, unfortunately this proved somewhat more challenging than anticipated as the one pub in the vicinity was not only packed but also suffered a TV malfunction just as the teams were lining up for the anthems. Thankfully Mrs Football Nerd, being a resourceful type, was on the case and found not only a restaurant / bar with a TV but also negotiated with some German fans who were on the verge of leaving and secured their soon-to-be-vacated table.
It having been at least another couple of hours since Paul had last eaten, he of course perused the menu, and decided that he fancied the pizza on the kids’ menu much to the annoyance of the owner, who made it abundantly clear that this was for children only. Mrs Football Nerd & I came to the rescue and suggested that while our 6 ft 3 ‘son’ was big for his age he was actually only 12! Quite what our host then made of us forcing vodka shots on our pseudo-offspring is anyone’s guess! Things got worse for our proprietor when a Colombian family of adults sitting next to us all decided they wanted the pizza as well!
After being serenaded by derogatory songs from the Germans to the Mexican fans, the former being oh so confident of their chances to the point of arrogance, we bade farewell to Glenn who was headed to the Fan Park as his recruitment to our party had happened post ticket ballot, and we headed for the ground.
To describe the Luzhniki Stadium as merely a football ground doesn’t do it justice, even though it has been completely rebuilt it still boasts a classic look and exudes the same sort of aura you associate with the classic stadiums of the world, but this one with a definite communist-era flavour to it. For those of us of a certain vintage, it evokes memories of: Wells, Coe, Ovett and Thompson taking gold.
There were Mexican supporters everywhere, the outfit of choice being a green jersey and your choice of sombrero or spooky wrestling mask, many opting for both. Passing through security was relatively straightforward except for Paul whose sun screen, water and emergency snack nuts were confiscated, obviously key ingredients in the manufacture of improvised explosive devices!
As we were relatively early due to the efficiency of the entry system, we did what football fans do and headed for the bar. To Paul and my absolute delight not only did four beers get you a cardboard suitcase type beer carrier, but the cups lit up on voice activation; there are now literally hundreds of Mexicans, Germans and Russians wondering who the Super White Army actually are?
The game itself was a fairly lively affair with the World Cup holders Germany looking strangely blunt in attack and susceptible to Mexico’s counter attacks, one time Arsenal player Carlos Vela and current West Ham striker Chicharito combining well to create a few early chances. Just past the half hour mark Mexico were rewarded for their incisive play when Lozano fired home after another lightning break. Germany tried to muster a response but ultimately were to be denied. All the way home Paul and I serenaded our metro car with ‘Oh Vela Vela, the Mexican superstar, he’s better than Cantona!’
Monday 18th June 2018
Over breakfast Glenn and Paul shared the details of the fire evacuation plan for the hotel that they had discovered in their room; which basically consisted of some cartoon pictures showing us how to abseil out of the window in some kind of harness/ nappy contraption that the guidance assured us was located somewhere in our room. None of us being able to locate it later meant that we had to take this one on trust!
We decided to spend the morning exploring the city a bit more and headed down to the riverside and Gorky Park. After seeing the insane Peter the Great statue which is a humungous metal ship with an oversized figure standing on it, rising up from the river itself, which Paul took great pleasure in informing us and everyone passing by that it had been ranked as the tenth ugliest building in the world; we happened upon a football-themed fun park, where we simply had to have our picture taken in a huge football snow globe, as well as having a go on each of the football-themed games dotted around.
The rest of us having worked up a suitable appetite to match Paul’s, we decided that it was time for a lunch stop on the balcony of a picturesque restaurant in the park. Our meal took three or four more pints than it should have done due to yours truly ordering barbeque chicken, not realising that our chef not only needed to catch the chicken but also to start up the barbeque from scratch! Still it killed the time before the Sweden – South Korea match.
Of course as we were in the park, the next challenge was to find somewhere to watch that match, however cometh the hour, cometh the 21st Century man, in this case, Glenn, who Googled our options and came up with the most unlikely of locations. Located on the 22nd and 23rd floors of the Russian Academy of Sciences and resembling a golden, albeit somewhat rusty spaceship, Sky Lounge is actually a fairly high end restaurant, I am not 100% sure they knew what to make of the arrival of four World Cup enthusiasts looking for a TV and beer. However as obviously Paul was feeling a bit peckish he ordered a bread basket and a glass of red wine to smooth the negotiations over.
Refreshed and rested, we resumed our trek after the match and headed for the Fan Park; we decided that we had done enough walking for the day so hailed a cab who eventually settled for a reasonable sum for the ten minute journey after starting at 5,000 Roubles. As we walked up to the entrance we met some new Russian friends who shared their ridiculously strong vodka and coke with us and a random souvenir seller gave Paul and Mrs Football Nerd crazy red, white and blue comedy hats simply because they were English, so much for the anticipated hostility!
The Fan Park was huge and well set-up with the most dramatic looking building behind it that looked like something from Gotham City rather than the former Soviet Union. There was a broad mix of fans from all over the place but strangely low numbers of England supporters who for once had not travelled to a tournament in great numbers, except to the cities England were playing in.
We watched Belgium sweep aside Panama and a random Russian guy called Alexander who had lived in Whitechapel in London attached himself to us, this was fine except his main method of communication was to reel off the names of classic rock bands. He finally departed and left us to the match just as it was coming to an end.
Paul and I, the two members of our party who were actually supporting England, were mightily relieved when Harry Kane headed England’s winner in stoppage time and treated those around us to our new ‘We’ve got Harry Kane’ song. As we departed the Fan Park a Talksport reporter stopped to interview Paul and I and warned us that it would feature as long as we didn’t swear, of course the first words out of my mouth when asked about the game were: ‘F**kin’ brilliant!’
We treated ourselves to a cab ride back to Hotel Cosmos, which while not expensive seemed to cover the circumference of every ring-road in Moscow. Just when we thought our day couldn’t get any better, Paul discovered a machine in the lobby selling ‘Space Food’, literally tubes of bizarre combinations of liquid food including:, chicken soup, cottage cheese with blackcurrant, and a tin of chicken and prune that could best be described as cat food; having been in Russia for three days we had learnt not to question these things, it was the Hotel Cosmos after all!