Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Hüvasti, Eesti, привет, Россия! (Bye, Estonia, hello Russia!)

Estonia was the tenth (out of 15) former Soviet republics I'd visited on this trip. Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Russia and Latvia have been the others (so no 'stans'). Fittingly, as the whole adventure has been based around the World Cup in Russia, the last former Soviet republic to visit, was the biggest. So, thirty years after my last visit, I returned to St Petersburg - only, of course, it wasn't called that then, it was Leningrad. I was keen to see how much things had changed since then and watch the remaining four round of 16 games.

My accommodation in Tallinn, especially for the last two nights, was excellent. I made a great choice there. "Blue & White Apartment" doesn't sound great but it was very good value for money and perfectly situated on the edge of the old town. I was a little concerned about it being right on the other side Tallinn from the airport, though, especially as I had an early flight to catch the final morning.

Originally I'd hoped to catch a train from Tallinn to St Petersburg but it would have put at risk watching the 5th round of 16 game, so I decided to fly instead - and the only flight that would  get me there comfortably in time to watch the football was an 8:10 am one. The Polish carrier "Lot" offered on-line check-in but it didn't seem to recognise my booking reference so I decided not to risk anything and get to the airport two hours early. Tallinn's not a big city so Google told me the taxi ride would only take 15 minutes. So I set my alarm to 5:30 am - on both my watch and my mobile as this was a critical one.

The bus and tram network wasn't good for my location and as it wasn't a hotel and I was a fair walk from the town center's taxi ranks, I chose to use the interweb to book an airport shuttle. It's a bit of a risk, of course, using something like this that you'd never heard of or heard anyone else using before but I figured Estonia is a very tech savvy country. They're bound to have got this right.

After making the booking, I received an automated email confirming the pick up point, which I'd selected using Google maps - so again no ambiguity there. Then I got another email from a person asking me to give my mobile phone number in case of problems. I replied saying I didn't have local network access so please use messenger or facebook. No problem, came the reply. The driver's name will be Kalvi and the number plates will be etc. He will be there at 5:50 am as you requested.

 So, after getting up and packing up my last things, I tidied up, locked the door, posted the keys through the letter box and turned to face the cold and the drizzle with five minutes to spare.

Sure enough, on the dot, a small minibus with the number plate I was looking for turned up. The bus was empty and had my name in big letters stuck to the inside of the passenger door window.

How good was this?

The driver was Kalvi and very pleasant he was too. Speaking in perfect English, he told me he'd been in Riga too recently. I was dropped off at the airport before 6 am so I got there before the check in had even opened. Time for a coffee and then I was through, smoothly, to wait at the gate for an hour and a half. Time to do some blogging.

Thanks for the stay!

Tallinn Airport

Note the suitcases as coffee tables

As I sat there tapping away, a long haired, bearded guy in a Sverige (Sweden) shirt to my right offered me a swig of his whiskey!

"No thanks" I chuckled

"Why not?" He was exasperated (and a bit pissed)

"It's too early and I don't like whiskey anyway, thanks."

I offered to buy him a coffee (my good deed for the day) and he unhesitatingly accepted.

By the time I'd brought him his coffee...

"Thank you sir!" he bellowed

... he'd started up a conversation with the lady to my left who was also tapping away.

She, apparently, was a Russian lawyer, also going to watch the football.

Sven (I imagine he was called Sven anyway) then went across and sat at her table and continued to pester her, and not me, until another bunch of Swedes came and then he started chuckling and chatting with them.

"Och då sa jag varför du inte dricker och han sa att det var för tidigt och då köpte han mig det här kaffet. Vilken dåre!"

Haha hah!

Soon it was time to board the plane for another quick flight that lasted less than an hour.

Within minutes after take off it became obvious that the plane was pretty much full of (largely Swedish, and largely drunken) football fans doing the same as me.

"Vere are you from?"


"Then you haf problem!"


"Are you going to the match?"


"Who do you want to win?"

"Schweiss. But we are German. We are in denial."

It wasn't great banter, so I put my earplugs in and catch up a bit on my podcasts.

I listed to the one about World Cup Stats.

Click to listen

Somewhere up there, over the clouds, we flew out of Estonia into Russia. So ended my (almost) 5 day stay in Estonia which puts it in my top 20 in terms of time spent there.

Tenth former Soviet Republic ticked off

Soon we'd arrived at St Petersburg but before we got off the plane we had an attempted rendition of "We are Swedish supporters" (or something like that)

Last time I was here (when it was still Leningrad) I had a scary time getting through security so I admit I was a bit nervous queuing up at passport control.

It was 1988 and I was here on a trip with dear Lesley. She was in front of me in the queue and got through after the usual three minute stare both at your face and the back of your head from the reflection of the mirror above it, from the border guard.

My turn.

The usual stare. I had had this before, so I wasn't worried.

Then the guard looked at me.


and gestured for me to go back to the waiting room.

"What? Why?" I squeaked.

"Wait!" He gestured, unmistakably, again.

I gestured to Leb, who was now waiting on the other side, that I had to go back.

We both tried to hide worried looks.

So that was that. I was sat on the other side of security from her with no explanation, no idea how long this was going to take or anything.

A bus had been organised to take the group of us to a hotel and after fifteen minutes or so they went off, leaving Lesley and me, separated  by a security barrier, to just wait at the airport.

I think it was an hour later that I finally got a gesture...


Another stare by the border guard and, finally, a nod.

I was not going to be sent to Siberia, after all. That was a relief.

I joined up with Lesley and we got a taxi to the hotel where the groups were being fed very watery soup.

It seems like a lifetime ago (30 years pretty much to the day) and so I was expecting that things had changed quite a bit. Sure enough, I got through customs no problem at all.

Thinking about this incident from the past, it does seem bizarre that the Soviet leader at the time, Mikhael Gorbachov, was seen as a nicer guy than the current Russian leader, President Vladimir Putin.

Welcome to St Petersburg

I was back to my routine here. Get WiFi, get cash. I'd already downloaded the map which was a good thing as there was no way I could connect to the WiFi at the airport.

Then, dodging past many taxi sharks, I headed for the No 39 bus which takes you to the nearest big metro station.

"Skolko?" I asked how much for the bus fare

"Sorok" was the conductor's reply.

So less than $1 Australian.

The metro was very big and efficient and had free Wifi but I opted not to use it as I knew where I was going now.

Soon, I was trundling along the massive open boulevards of St Petersburg heading towards my next destination, my relatively cheap accommodation that I'd booked through booking.com at the "Apart-House Fontanka" named after the river (or is it a canal) which it is next to.

Monument to Leningrad

Metro Plan - get off at Teknologiski Institute

"Odin Na Teknologiski Institute, Pozhalsta"

Going down

Going Up

First impressions of St Petersburg


So.... where is it?
I arrived at the address booking.com had directed me too and confirmed it with Google maps having typed in the address a couple of times but there was nothing here that looked like any kind of hostel. To be fair, neither did the (excellent) one I'd just been too in Tallinn.

I knocked on a the door of a building round the corner and a lovely, very well spoken, young lady went out of her way to try to help me. She walked me to the center of a big block of apartments and asked a few people but the answers were always negative. She tried calling the phone number listed on booking.com but there was no reply.

"Spasiba bolshoy" I said as she shrugged her shoulders and went back to work.

Now what?

I was hungry so I found a cafe to have some nice, simple, Russian food and connect to the WiFi so I could send them an email.

After twenty five minutes, having eaten my chicken meat balls and potatoes, drank my tea, and still no reply, I started to get into a bit of a panic.

I sent another email, saying I was getting concerned about my experience so far and I was going to start looking for somewhere else to stay. According to booking.com there were a few hotels nearby that were quite highly rated so I set off to find one and just take a look.

The weather was as miserable as my mood as I trudged along the grey streets towards the first of the mini hotels.

I must admit I was hoping for something that looked like a hotel but instead there was just a door with a sign on it saying it was "Mini Hotel: Blues".

I must say, I wasn't impressed so went back to the cafe I'd been in to see if they'd replied yet.

Yes, they had. There was an apology for not answering the call and an offer to meet at 2 pm (in half an hour from then) to get the keys. They even offered me a ten percent discount because of the hassle.

Fair enough.

Anyway, sure enough, a young lady was there to meet me. She took me up to my room which has deco that my auntie Leni would appreciate more than me and then promptly left, leaving me with the keys. It seems I'm the only one here, which is something and the Wifi is pretty good.

Apart-House, where are you?

Outside the address on Booking.com

The block

The Fontanka

My Dinner
Anyway.... time for football.

My first impressions of St Petersburg not being, exactly, great, I didn't know what to expect of the Sports Bar the Prof had found for me, but I trudged off through the increasingly gloomy weather to find it.

When I finally realised it was actually a hotel bar - so I wasn't going to see any evidence of it from the street, I strode purposefully towards the front door of the hotel. As I did so, a couple of guys who were standing outside came up to me.

"Hello. Are you the Uber driver?"

"Well I've been accused of being some things in my life, but never that!"

"No, sorry. Are you staying at this hotel?"


"Is there a bar in there?"

"Yes. A sports bar. A good one."

Once inside, it was like entering Aladin's Cave. Not only was this a great sports bar (the best in St Petersburg by all accounts). It has to be one of the best I've ever been to anywhere.

Massive. Screens everywhere. A good bar with stools all around it for single people to sit at if they want to chat to others. A row of armchairs facing a big screen if you want to indulge. Many little coves with tables with their own TV if you have a small group. Lots of different beers. Good food on offer. Pool tables. Table football tables. Great, attentive, bar staff.

I was in heaven!

I found a spot next to a few Kiwis over for the football too. Two couples. Very nice they were too.

We all sat down and got ready for the first game of the day, Brazil v Mexico.

There must have been about twenty Brazilian fans in the bar, all wearing their bright yellow and all happy with bright personalities shining though as you come to expect from Brazilians.

Their national anthem seems to reflect this brightness.

Brazil 2 Mexico 0

In my dreams I had Mexico to win this but in reality Mexico never beat Brazil. The two teams have made the last 16 at every World Cup for ages but Mexico have only won once and Brazil have only lost once.

Mexico started very well and I thought this could be yet another big scalp out of the tournament. For twenty minutes or so Mexico were the better side. Then that enigmatic character Neymar started to dazzle us with his undoubtedly brilliant skills and the game then rocked from end to end.

At half time it was fairly balanced with the score at 0-0.

But in the second half Brazil seemed to change gear while Mexico stalled and kept giving the ball away. Not a good idea.

Early in the second half came the inevitable breakthrough. The scorer... the enigma himself.

As the game wore on, it became increasingly apparent that, yet again, this was not going to be Mexico's year. With over 125 million people, who are football mad, they are the great under achievers at World Cups but, like England, they never seem to get the luck or the refereeing decisions.

Quite a few of the refereeing decisions, it seemed to me, had favoured Brazil already during the game but on about an hour there was an incident that will overshadow all of Neymar's brilliance where the refereeing could have been decisive and taken a significant turn against Brazil - but didn't.

After an innocuous looking challenge on the half way line on the left side of the pitch, Neymar found himself off the pitch, on the ground the other side of the touch line with the ball at his feet. Clearly concerned about time wasting, the Mexican full back went to collect the ball. As he did so he appeared (maybe) to touch Neymar's leg with his boot.

The reaction from Neymar was as if he'd got a rusty old saw out of his back pocket and applied it aggressively to his left patela. Neymar rolled and writhed around in apparent agony. Like a four year old in a tantrum, he wanted (and got) everyone's attention. The match was delayed as medical staff rushed to his aid as the Mexican team looked on bemused, knowing full well what this was all about.

In the sports bar, this kind of divided opinion somewhat. Those of us not wearing the yellow of Brazil were furious.

"Get up, you big cheat!" was typical

The Brazilians, not quite.

When the TV replay showed the incident for the third time, though, I saw a few of the Brazil fans turn and look at each other with expressions that said 'what an embarrassment he is'.

Next to me, one of the kiwis (who later I heard was a referee of quite a decent standard in New Zealand) was getting really angry.

"The referee should just play on. He's off the field. He has no obligation to stop the play here. This is blatant time wasting tactics!"

I don't know how long the whole ting took but it must have been more than the six minutes of official "injury" time that would be added on at the end.

FIFA, this is a scandal. You have to do something about this. It makes the game a laughing stock.

There are at least two big problems here. 

Firstly the concept of "injury time" is a joke. We have to have thirty (or so) minute halves but have a timekeeper who stops the watch when the ball goes dead. The actual amount of play in a 45 minute half at a top tournament like this is often less than half of that time. 

Secondly, the outrageous theatrics. Something has to be done such that the more a player rolls around, the more seriously we assume he's been injured and (most importantly) the more time he has to go off for proper checks. The ref would decide. That Neymar performance should have earned him a 10 out of 10 for medical concern. He was obviously hurt so badly he should have been made to go off the field (while play continued) for ten minutes for a proper medical check up. 

"No. You looked really bad there. We have to be sure. Off to the back of the stands. We'll call the doctor immediately. The checks shouldn't take more than six or seven minutes. You'll be fine."

Can you imagine how quickly he'd have got up then?

In the end, of course, he did get up as soon as his cynical cheating ploy had done its job and played on, seconds later, as if nothing had happened. Whatever pain he'd suffered (and judging by his reaction) it must have been right up there, had magically disappeared and a few moments later he was able to turn his skill on again to create an almost carbon copy of the goal he'd scored himself earlier.

I don't think I am being too extreme in suggesting that Neymar should have been sent off for that performance. It certainly would have changed the game in Mexico's favour if the ref had been harder on him.

Anyway, adios Mexico.

After the first match I had two hours before the next and was going to find another bar to watch the Belgium game but the weather had got even worse so I opted to stay warm and dry in this fantastic bar.

Belgium 3 Japan 2

There was slightly less interest (before the match started) in Belgium v Japan so I managed to get one of the prized armchair spots (I've also reserved one for the England game tomorrow!).

The Japanese national anthem is very different than the Brazilian. Much more somber. But still very beautiful in my opinion.

What a game this was. It has to be the game of the tournament so far.

In a nutshell, Japan stunned us all by taking a 2-0 lead with two great goals but Belgium powered back after two inspired substitutions from Martinez, their manager, to win 3-2 with the last kick of the game.

Here are most of the goals (somehow I missed the equaliser)...

You have to feel sorry for Japan but, as Boro said, don't forget how cynically they played against Poland. If they'd have shown the same passion that match they could have won their group ("God" help England, if that would have happened) and also Hazrd had been very unlucky and hit the post when the score was 0-1. It would probably have been very different if that had gone in.

Neymar showed football at it's best and worst. The players from Belgium and Japan... only it's best.

So... Brazil v Belgium is the 3rd quarter final. A very mouth-watering prospect indeed!

After such a great evening I trudged back across the gloomy streets in the pouring rain to my strange little room to get some much needed sleep.

доброй ночи!

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