World Cup Postcard - Football's coming home

Sat, Jun 30 2018

England B line up with Belgium B ahead of their game in Kaliningrad Credit: Macdara Ferris (ETPhotos)

Macdara Ferris reports from Kaliningrad

When plotting out a schedule for which group games extratime.ie would attend, I hoped to witness a memorable England v Belgium game. However I certainly didn’t think it would be noteworthy for being a match that both teams seemed to want to lose to get a more favourable route in the tournament!

The bizarre nature of what turned out to be a game played effectively between two B teams was heightened by the game taking place in an enclave Russian city surrounded by Poland and Lithuania, in front of a relatively small 5,000 strong England support – far less than would usually follow ‘The Three Lions’ at tournaments.

On match day, Kaliningrad city centre did have the familiar look of an England away game with St. George’s cross flags fluttering in the air with the names of assorted lower tier English clubs on display. Both Belgian and English supporters mingled in the main square ahead of the game with no hint of trouble. 

As usual certain hype has built up about this England team and their tournament winning chances, but the only flag I saw with a captain lifting the World Cup trophy was one with a Belgian player pictured on it.

The policing was quite measured in the city. There were lots of police wandering around in twos or threes but not a huge visible presence although the riot police were in a quiet location off to the side of the main square if required.

For all the matches I’ve attended during the tournament, security is very tight for both supporters and the media. Entering the ground my press badge is electronically scanned and the picture reviewed to assure there is a likeness.

When FIFA took my photo for the accreditation on the first day of the tournament, I was clean shaven but when attending a game two weeks into the tournament, the security guy did a triple take to make sure the guy with the beard in front of him was the same person as in the picture!

The FIFA Fan Fest in Kaliningrad was protected by having the vehicular entrances blocked off by massive trucks to prevent unauthorised access by someone who wanted to use a vehicle as a weapon.

The military were still visible in both Kaliningrad and St. Petersburg but they were just going about their daily business rather than policing the tournament.

This reflected the fact that both cities are major naval bases for the Russian fleet and the work day uniform happens to be naval or military fatigues.

There were volunteers everywhere in the host cities. Scores of mainly young Russians clad in Adidas gear. Red for the FIFA World Cup volunteers or blue for the host city volunteers – stop for any length of time and they were quickly over to ask could they help.

Many of the volunteer roles aren’t the most glamorous. I felt sorry for those stuck in the ground floor back-of-house areas of the stadium - every 20 metres or so holding a sign pointing the media in the direction of the relevant working areas.

They were never without a nod, a smile and a hello though. Any of the volunteers in the general stadium area armed with a foam hand are likely to have repetitive strain injury after the tournament with all the high fiving that they were doing with the visiting supporters.

England fans were into the Kaliningrad Stadium early to get their flags hanging up. A Portsmouth flag proclaiming ‘England & Proud’ and a Crewe flag noting that ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’. No sign of a St. George’s Flag saying ‘Michel Barnier thinks we are at work’ though!

Over the PA, they played Three Lions with the words karaoke style scrolling along the bottom but the England fans knew them all by heart. “It’s coming home, it’s coming home, It’s coming, football’s is coming home.”

I spoke with some Leicester City fans who had driven 24 hours to Kaliningrad, negotiating lengthy queues at the border with Poland. They got to see their striker Jamie Vardy play but he was quiet in the 1-0 defeat.

During the tournament I’ve seen the Brazilian, Argentinian and England press core close at hand. The Brazilians were big into branded media clothing to show which organisation they belonged to.

With Argentina, I found it disconcerting to be sitting at the post-match press conference listening to Lionel Messi while beside me a journalist was sitting there with blue and white face paint on their cheeks!

The heavyweights of the British press pack were all in attendance in Kaliningrad. Huge numbers of well known print journalists, along with broadcasters. Every where you looked there was a familiar face. 

There’s Glenn Hoddle standing in the canteen queue. Who is that sitting at the back of the press conference room, it is Gabby Logan. That familiar voice behind me in the press box – oh it is Geoff Shreeves.

The Irish media also were represented in Kaliningrad with George Hamilton and Ronnie Whelan in the stadium doing commentary for RTÉ. In the media tribune, four Irish journalists were allocated seats together. 

Keith Duggan from the Irish Times, Off the Ball’s John Duggan, myself reporting for extratime.ieand Ronan Murphy who spent a couple of weeks in Kaliningrad working for Goal.com.

We all swapped our travel stories before kick off reflecting on our positive experiences during our time in the country; the welcoming nature of the people, the brilliant atmosphere created by the travelling fans and memorable matches out on the pitch – what a World Cup is all about. Russia had put its best face forward.

The morning after the match in Kaliningrad, the final match the city will host in the tournament, it was a case of after the Lord Mayor’s show.

The fan zone was shut – with it being a rest day in the tournament – and it will likely be quiet for the rest of the tournament unless the locals are into overpriced fast food, official FIFA sponsor beer or soft drinks and techno music being blasted out.

There were only a handful of Belgian fans in the city centre. As for the English, outside the Radisson Hotel they were piling on buses back to Gdansk. Enterprising Kaliningrad locals had advertised on lampost flyers transfers to and from the Polish city which is less than 150km away.

Local Air BnB hosts had no doubt made a killing but I can’t complain about the spacious and spotlessly clean apartment I rented close to the city centre – even if the entrance to the building made me feel I was going into a ‘vacant’ in Baltimore.

The city has been put on the map as there were countless ‘so just where is Kaliningrad’ articles in the media this week (including my own here!). Their local football team have gotten a brand new stadium but I don’t expect they will fill it week in-week out. 

If Ireland had qualified despite the unpredictable nature of the tournament we most likely would have struggled in the matches. It still would have been a great sight to see some of the super Russian stadiums decked out in green.

Along the way I did meet a few Irish who were taking matches in Russia – including one person who was attending 14 games in the group stages. I didn’t get to meet the Ireland fan whose aim was to watch matches in all 12 venues while attempting to see all 32 teams play.

He was plotting out a route that was truly a logistical nightmare working on which teams would progress and Germany’s early elimination might well have scuppered his 32 team plan.

The England fans on leaving Kaliningrad were plotting their route all the way to the final but Colombia will have something to say about that.

As for your extratime.ie reporter, well he was plotting his route back to Ireland. With the group games complete, this football reporter is coming home.