At first I was afraid, I was petrified, kept thinking how I’d cope in Russia without anyone by my side. But, just like Gloria Gaynor, I survived – despite a few issues entering Russia from Poland at the start of my trip and when I ventured off the beaten track and found myself being closely watched by men in uniform.
Like my experience in South Africa in 2010, the World Cup sprinkled magic dust on each host city and all the horror stories you read in the lead up to the event are far from the reality you experience when you arrive. And just like the Olympics in London in 2012 and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014, I never truly felt on my own with young, energetic, happy volunteers on every street corner donning foam hands, ready to high five you after giving you directions or information in perfect English.
And while I did not quite feel the love from Joe Public in Russia – more of an acknowledgement that I was in their country – I stuck to the World Cup areas (on the whole) and the paid hands ensured I have a great time. My World Cup adventure started on June 16 as I jetted into Gdańsk in Poland before being picked up and driven the short drive to the Province of Kaliningrad.
The host city of four World Cup games, including England v Belgium, is actually separated from mainland Russia by the likes of Lithuania and Belarus and is more than 1,000 kilometres away from Moscow. It is essentially what Gibraltar is to Britain – or certainly that’s how I made the comparison in my head. Both important for their position and their ports – especially for the Russian exclave as it’s their only port on the Baltic coast that doesn’t freeze in winter!
My first experience of Russia came after crossing the border from Poland near the town of Braniewo. The Polish guards were very friendly as we made our way past their patrol and under a huge World Cup banner: ‘This’ll be easy,’ I thought to myself. One hour later, after having my passport and visa heavily examined with every page checked closely for any sign of tampering and being interrogated about my intentions in Russia, which I thought were fairly obvious, I was allowed to enter and was greeted by a band of aforementioned World Cup volunteers.
They provided the welcome I’d hoped for and produced a helpful guide to Kaliningrad as well as posing for a photo – much to the annoyance of my driver who just wanted to get away from the eyes of our interrogators. After crossing the border and discussing that experience, my driver turned to me and said: “Welcome to Russia.” Moments later we were pulled over by the police for one of many car and passport checks before getting into the centre of Kaliningrad.
Driving to the city, once named Koenigsberg, the villages have a strong German look and felt that I had experienced before after visits to visit family in Berlin and east Germany. It didn’t surprise me then to be told by my driver that it was part of Germany until World War Two, when it was bombed to rubble by the allies, besieged by the advancing Red Army and captured in the final months of the war.
The impact of the Allied efforts in the War became clear as we enter the outskirts of the city and see the Soviet Union-style stark housing blocks.
I was in Kaliningrad first to watch the Croatia v Nigeria game and after being dropped off in the heart of the city, I was greeted by a wall of checked red and white shirts and all my initial fears and worries were washed away by the electric atmosphere as I made my way from group to group, learning about their experiences so far in Russia.
There weren’t many Nigeria fans in Russia – the majority I came across actually hailed from London – but that was hardly surprising given the warnings in the media for those who aren’t white and heterosexual.
It was a complete contrast for the England v Belgium game with an even number of opposing fans. The Belgians, in my opinion, outclassed us in their attire though. Many were wearing black, gold and red outfits, some in suits, while the England fans just took off their tops to show off their patriotic tattoos and beer bellies. Nice.
My walk to the stadium on both occasions took in the impressive cathedral and the main route was lined by performers with the sound of vuvuzelas helped create a carnival feeling as I walked closer to the stadium, which was absolutely stunning both inside and out.
The atmosphere was incredible for both matches but more so for the Croatia game, which was a home game given the tens of thousands of Croats inside the stadium, and the performances from both Croatia and Nigeria helped ensure it continued throughout the 90 minutes, whereas the England Belgium game had more of a friendly feel about it and the atmosphere nose-dived in the second half.