Having quickly turned down Dennis from the train’s offer to all stick together for the nine hours leading up to the match we found ourselves in the middle of a fairly typically rundown looking Russian city. Carrying on the theme of our travels abroad we headed straight for a McDonalds near the stadium before doing a lap of its outer limits. The stadium itself was a new build by the Volga River running through the heart of the city and being overlooked by the Motherland Calls statue on the other side.
Walking round the stadium and finding our entrance gate for later meant heading through a nearby park which was gearing up for the masses of football fans that were about to descend into the area. Whilst strolling through the park we encountered the flies that became a talking point pre-match in the media. We had never seen anything like it before with hundreds of them all up our arms and covering your phone as you tried to take photos. Luckily during the match they didn’t bother the fans in the stands as they were too busy with the floodlights up above.
As the afternoon wore on we headed up to easily the most impressive thing in Volgograd which is The Motherland Calls Statue. At 85 meters high the statue is the tallest in Europe with supposedly 200 steps leading up to it symbolizing the 200 days of the Battle of Stalingrad. The photo opportunities heading up the steps were frequent with stone carvings and water features in front of a clear blue sky. It really was one of the most astonishing places I had ever been to and I’m sure had it been in a more popular city for tourists all year round it would be as well known and familiar to us as the Eiffel Tower. The local authorities were perhaps laying it on a bit thick as they played dramatic sounding music as you walked up but never the less it was a real highlight of the trip.
At the top by the base of the statue you had a real 360 view of the city including the stadium. We were two of many football fans that day making the climb which meant for the first time we started to encounter other England fans who had come over. One fan from Liverpool explained in an alarmingly aggressive way how disappointed he felt that there were going to be around five thousand more Tunisian fans there that evening.
At least however for this supporter in particular and to our surprise the Russian locals appeared to be strongly supporting England that night and a lot of them explained how we were their second team after Russia. Many of them as on the train down wanted selfies with us and a chat about the Premier League back home and who they thought would start for England that evening. It’s when travelling abroad like this that you start to appreciate the real global brand that is the Premier League and the impact that it has worldwide.
Having climbed down the 200 steps we got the city’s tram network away from the stadium towards the fan park so we could watch Sweden take on South Korea. The park was on the banks of the River Volga at the bottom of a huge set of concrete steps which acted as tiered seating for fans. Whilst sat with a couple of beers what felt like the remaining few members of the British embassy came round asking the England fans if they were enjoying their trip and explained what we needed to do in case of any problems. The guy we spoke to was from Glasgow so jokingly said he wasn’t too happy to give out advice to England fans.
As we had our England tops on in the fan park we continued to attract attention from the local people. One kid sat with me and talked about how he had aspirations to come and study at a British university so we exchanged stories about living in our respective countries. James got slightly less fortunate about who came to speak to him as whilst I was talking about studying and living in Britain he was asked the question by another man “are there many Africans in England?” Of course he gave a very diplomatic answer which the man accepted without alarm but it was a slightly tense moment.
Most other questions we were asked cantered around the fact that there weren’t many England fans there, clearly the locals had been looking forward to their arrival. To be honest it was a tough question to answer. We tried to blame it on England’s poor form in recent tournaments but we knew that wasn’t true as England is usually well supported no matter how they play. We couldn’t though answer the question straight up with “well your nasty dictator and his crazy views plus the reputation of hooliganism in Russian football”.
Anyway it was time to put the politics to one side as it was time for the reason why we were all there. We got the metro back to the ground and found our gate which was a long way from the actual stadium, presumably for security reasons. Our seats were about half way up and behind the goal that England would be attacking in the first half. During the players warm-ups the announcer suddenly introduced the Tunisian’s football team song which then made us think possibly they would play Three Lions.
The Tunisian song finished and the announcer spoke the words of “and now it’s time for the England football team song, Three Lions”. We both started cheering and singing along which meant everyone around us could clearly see who we were supporting. Russian fans started filming us and clapping along with the chorus as a good spirited family friendly atmosphere started to emerge in the stands.
England in the end won the match with a dramatic late winner through Harry Kane which obviously topped of a brilliant evening. A couple of guys next to me had come from Egypt to be there and were disappointed as they were supporting Tunisia however they took it with good grace and shook our hands after the game. After the full time whistle we stayed standing by our seats taking in what had happened in.
The ground was emptying fast apart from the pocket of England fans on the other side of the pitch who were still singing their new chant to the tune of September by Earth, Wind & Fire. James still had his top off from when Kane scored and this time the 98 version of Three Lions was being played on a loop which happens to start with the commentary of Gareth Southgate missing his penalty in Euro 96.
It was around midnight by the time we had collected are bag and left the stadium and with seven hours to kill before the train back to Moscow we headed into Volgograd. First of all we ended up in an underground modern bar which was absolutely packed so we had to stand out in what was essentially the back yard with a load of England fans who were convinced I looked like John Stones. (No me neither).
They had heard rumours that there was an Irish pub round the corner where most of the England fans were congregating that was staying open till 2am. We agreed that was better than nothing in terms of killing time before the train so we decided to follow this group all of which were dressed in their replica retro England kits like us, James pointed out that it was like being in the Vindaloo music video as we walked down the street.
We appeared to be walking down a street that could have been taken out of an affluent area of North London as the properties were big terrace town houses. The real noticeable difference though between their and London was the layer of sand and dust under your feet. Eventually we turned a corner where there was a string of bright and vibrant restaurants with the pub at the end in the middle of what was probably once a car park before it got covered in sand.
Inside it was standing room only with just two members of staff working behind the bar. As James was getting the drinks in the unmistakable sound of the start of Vindaloo began which was followed by Queen’s We Are The Champions, Oasis’s Wonderwall before finishing with Three Lions. In reflection this was probably the best half an hour of my life and the trip. It was a time when we were able to enjoy where we were without having to worry about logistics, security risks or whether England would play well. The information about the pub shutting at two was clearly incorrect as the bar staff kept ringing the bell but never stopped serving.
After the singing was done we headed outside onto the dust bowl as it was still incredibly warm and muggy and spoke to some of the locals. This was a slightly serial experience as the people we spoke to I suppose were their equivalent of the half eleven weatherspoon’s Monday night drinkers. I found myself in an alarming situation with one of them when a young man came up to me in the dark and started stroking my hand and told me I had very beautiful eyes, at this moment we thought it best to leave as the sun was coming up and there were two police officers watching over the pub.
By the time we got to the station it was daylight again so it was time to stock up for the train home from a nearby supermarket and say goodbye to Alex who was following on in a later train. So back we went on another 24 hour long sleeper train back to Moscow which this time had a much quieter downbeat atmosphere on it. We caught up with some of the Tunisian fans we had met on the train down and talked about our thoughts on the match itself. Getting sleep at night time was fairly problematic for a little while as Russia won their second game which meant next door to us were cheering at regular intervals.
We arrived back at Moscow station at about six in the morning absolutely exhausted from what we had been through. It truly was the most incredible few days visiting a place no one we know will probably ever go to apart from the people we met out there. In the end the match felt like a bit of an irrelevance but still, England had got off to a winning start for the first time in twelve years and we were there to witness it.