Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Joy in Saint Petersburg for Sweden... and England!

I woke up early as usual, but it wasn't as pleasant an early morning wake-up as it has been for the past few weeks. Nevertheless I had a couple of hours to do my blog and then go off and try to do a bit of site seeing in Russia's No 2 city, Saint Petersburg, before focusing back on the remaining two World Cup Round of 16 games. I had a ticket to watch the least glamorous match of the round, Sweden v Switzerland, and I had a reserved seat in the best sports bar in the city (if the Prof, and my instincts, are to be trusted) for the big one: England v Colombia. The winners of the two games would meet in the Quarter Finals.

The Joy came later for me
If ever you happen to be going to Saint Petersburg and are looking for budget accommodation through you might come across a property labelled "Fabulous" that is relatively cheap. I did. I clicked. I booked. I paid. The property is called "Apart-House Fontanka". It comes with lots of good reviews and lots of great photos. My experience wasn't great, though, I have to say, although it did have good Wifi, it was pretty well located and I did get a 10% discount on the already quite low price.

My advice is don't. It's a bit of a hovel to be brutally honest.

Not Fabulous

The shenanigans yesterday trying to find the place and then getting in touch with the owners were bad enough and I know some people would have just walked away and found somewhere else as soon as that started to unfold. But, see, I'm a bit of a sucker for punishment and I have this instinct that even if you go somewhere that's really shitty, it makes the other places you stayed look better in comparison. Life's rich tapestry and all that.

When I went to Rio in 2009 on my way to Chicago for the AAS (American Anthropological Society) meeting where I presented the wading hypothesis in front of 200 hostile aquaskeptics, and John Langdon, I stayed in a very cheap place that was a big mistake. I was woken up in the middle of the night by the sound of metal being sawed and ferocious dogs barking downstairs. Each room had bars on the windows and someone seemed to be trying to break in (and not, I assume, escape.) It honestly went on for 45 minutes, at least. I was terrified. I was too scared to leave my room and ended up taking the mattress off the bed and placing it next to the door and then lay on it - as if any gang would be put off by that. Anyway, it all ended peacefully and the next day I had a great day with only one big scare (not now) but resolved never to go for the cheapest option ever again. What's another $30 a night if it saves you from fear of death!?

Anyway, for my Saint Petersburg stay this year, I hadn't forgotten the Rio experience but it had, kind of, diminished in importance in my mind over the last nine years, and also the World Cup had hiked up the prices of the decent hotels so much, I was determined not to be ripped off.

(Don't laugh!)

Anyway. "Apart-House Fontanka", although it sounds quite glamorous, is just someone's apartment - obviously made empty during the World Cup for the purpose of making a few dollars. Fair enough. The place I stayed at in Tallinn was similarly just a dolled up apartment, although not specifically for the World Cup, I suspect.

The staircase up two flights of classically grand stairs would have been quite pleasant if it wasn't so dark and dingy and it didn't smell of cat piss. Once you get inside, the flat had the sort of deco my late Auntie Leni would have loved, but not many other people. At least the apartment and my room had doors that locked and at least I had a bed, although, like Germany's defence, it had no clean sheets, just those plastic kind of sleeping bag things. It did have a functioning toilet and a bathroom with a decent shower but I was only left two tiny hand towels to dry myself. That provided a bit of a logistic challenge in itself. Luckily no-one else seemed to have fallen for their marketing so I was able to walk around the flat bollock-naked to dry off.

Anyway, I shouldn't moan. These experiences are the very stuff of adventures like this. How good the places I stayed in Odessa, Chisinau, Bucharest, Yerevan and Istanbul seem now, in comparison. I should say "Спасибо!"

And, as I said, the Wifi was actually pretty fast so I was able to upload all my photos and write my blog before setting off to do a bit of site-seeing.

The best thing about the place I stayed - why I chose it really - is that it was within walking distance of the big Neva river right at the center of the city where most of the famous sites are.

So, off I went.

Literally as I crossed the road, the heaven's opened up and after a few minutes trudging through the gloom, getting progressively wetter, I decided this wasn't a good policy and found one of the good old Russian Stolovaya food chains to site down, dry off and have something to eat. I really like these places. The food is basic but tasty, plentiful and cheap. It's a bit like school dinners but I would happily eat there every day if I lived in a Russian city.

I spotted the rain had stopped and so set off again towards the Neva, past some canals that evoke faint memories of Venice. It is called the "Venice of the north" for good reason but here they're grand and cold, functional channels of water, not the cute and lovingly designed ones you see in the Italian city.

The sight of the Neva was impressive though. I've seen it twice before, once in 1983 when I came with Intourist and had a rendez-vous with three sweet young Estonians (Kiti Loorits, Jana Demjanova and a guy whose name I forget) I'd met in Tallinn a few days before, and once in 1988 when I came with lovely Leb when the Sajudis movement was just starting to change things in Lithuania under Gorbachov.

It's a spectacular channel of water and it reminded me a bit of the Bosphorus in its grandeur, if not its width. Right next to the familiar four storey block of houses that are spread out all over the massive city, there was a bizarre sight - the front end of a massive cruise liner. There were six or seven docked around that part of the river. Obviously a popular cruise destination for Europeans.

I crossed over the Blagoveshchensky suspension bridge and walked along the north bank of the Neva. I was tempted to go on a river cruise but none were leaving at a convenient time, or else were going to last too long. I only had a couple of hours. I decided I'd do a circular route to the city end of the Vasileostrovsky island, cross the Birzhevoy Bridge and then cross over next to the island on which the Peter and Paul fortress resides and then cross the Trotsky bridge and head back to the Hermitage and Nevsky prospect before heading off to the match.

But as always, Murphy's Law intervened and the footpath next to the fortress was closed so I just doubled back and crossed the famous Palace Bridge instead.

Anyway, this part of Saint Petersburg is truly magnificent and an army of tourists with mobile phones and cameras in hand must take millions of photos every day there. Me too!

Grim day for site-seeing

Good basic food at Stolovaya

Not quite Venice

Grander, and not so smelly

But not much "amore"

Bizarre site, if you're not expecting it...

Weather starts to brighten up - and so do I

I find suspension bridges amazing. Well anything designed by civil engineers actually. Well anything designed... you know what I mean.

Here's this massive bridge, strong enough for a hundred Russian tanks to cross over, and it can lift up to allow big ships through. How did they do that? The appliance of science, of course.

Where the drawbridge joins

Neva Neva land

Don't forget there's a World Cup going on!

Boat trip - so near and yet so far

Stadium in the distance

Not THE stadium, though, I think

Looks nice, but it's just a cheesy restaurant

The Hermitage is maaaasive!

Once I'd seen the Hermitage (no time and, frankly, insufficient interest, to go in) my next target was to visit Nevsky Prospect. When Lesley and I came here in 1988 we did a little wandering down this street which is supposed to be a kind of equivalent in Oxford Street in London. We went in one of the fancy-looking shops and were astonished to see some of the items on sale.

It might be my memory playing tricks, but I am sure that at one point, under glass for display was...

wait for it....

.... a turquoise plastic comb, like this...

Da, ve haf many combs in the Soviet Union!

I wanted to see what the effect of thirty years of capitalism might have had. Things had changed dramatically, of course. There were shops that you'd find in any "western" city anyway but it still did look a bit dingy to be honest. Not as plush as I was expecting, anyway.

Ay, 'es a right nevsky prospect, that chap!

Around the corner from  the Hermitage and you're at Nevsky Prospect

Better things than plastic combs on display these days


So after ticking that sad little mission off. It was time to go to the match. 

Neva again

The Admireltaskaya Metro station is right by Nevsky Prospect so it was the easiest way to get to the stadium. (Thanks to the helphul staff in the FIFA help center.) It was also the same line that would take me to the metro station closest to the bar I was in last night, and returning to for the England game.

St Petersburg Metro is very impressive


It was only five stops to the station nearest to the stadium but it was still a twenty minute walk when I got there. Very pleasant though, through a lovely wooded boulevard with what looked like a great theme park next door. My kids would have skipped the match and gone there instead, I'm sure. Every time they go back to blighty, first on their agenda is Alton Towers. Such is the power of nostalgia I guess. Look at me, in Saint Petersburg for three hours, and top of my list is to see if they still sell turquoise plastic combs!

25 minute walk to the stadium

Not quite Oblivion but sounded scary enough, going by the screams

Stadium looming

The stadium is incredibly impressive. It must have cost billions to build. Beautiful and awesome.

Stadiums are the cathedrals of the modern era as football is a kind of religion of the masses. Personally, I am certainly far happier to be a believer at a football ground than in a church.

The security was tight but, unlike Kaliningrad, somewhat disorganised. Here I was, in a massive queue along with thousands of others at gate 5, waiting to present my Fan Id and ticket, with about 30 minutes until kick off and a girl with a loudspeaker starts bellowing...

"Please, move to gate 9 or 10. It is empty there."


Now I expect she wasn't telling fibs but Gate 9 or 10 would be right on the other side of the ground, at least 5 or ten minutes walk away, so no thanks, I'll stay here.

Not many followed her suggestion but when some did, it shortened the line a little for us skeptics.

Anyway, after climbing a million steps, finally, I got to see that sight that always astonishes me with awe - the look at a football pitch from the stands of a stadium. The awe is greater the bigger the stadium, of course, but I always get a tingle down my spine, even if it's just the LFF ground in Vilnius.

We are Swedish supporters!

about to unfold the World Cup logo

Magnificent sight - modern worship

Sweden 1 Switzerland 0

This was the least inspiring game of the round of 16. Talking to other fans queuing outside and those inside, few were here because it was Sweden v Switzerland. Most had hoped for Germany v Serbia or maybe Mexico v Germany. Damn! How did Sweden beat Mexico?

The Swedish and Swiss national anthems were played but neither are very inspiring. They're both kind of Germanic, serious, dutiful hymns that remind you to be good citizens. (But better than "God Save Our Queen" in my humble opinion.)

I couldn't make my mind up who I wanted to win and was reluctant to pick a team in case fate would punish my arrogance for assuming England would be facing the victors. Des, my Forest and Perth Glory fan mate in WA will tell you I am the worst Mr Jinxer ever. But sod that! I maintain that nothing I think, say, do or write can possibly influence anything that happens of a football pitch.

I am NOT Mr Jinxer, Des!

With that in mind, as the game started, I pronounced...

"May the worst team win!"

As it happened, I think that's just about what we got. The Swiss were more inventive, had more possession, created more chances but were continually thwarted.

The game was pretty drab, I thought. And not just me. The guy next to me, from Minsk, Belarus said.

"I think I go sleep!"

And the guy to my right, some kind of Ecuadorian entrepreneur got me to do a video for him to help promote some kind of headphone!

The message (I hope I got this right)...

"Entre partir necesito mas bombador"

... basically suggesting that the game needed a boost (from his headphones).

Anyway, after a pretty drab first half I was finally able to go and buy a small bottle of water to drink before facing the second half.

Sweden eventually scored a flukey, deflected goal to take the lead and, as is their wont (I've always wanted to use that word, I hope it's right in this context) they defended resolutely to keep it that way.

I had decided before the match started that if the game went to extra time I'd abandon ship and get back to the bar to watch the England game anyway - far more important. But I still hoped it would be over in 90 minutes.

After another Swiss attack came to nought on around 88 minutes I decided to head off and beat the crowds and get back to the bar in good time to grab a good seat to watch the big one.

I heard only one roar as I walked away which I guessed (correctly) meant Sweden had won 1-0 but I did check when I came across a lad watching the match in a cafe.

The metro ride was very smooth and so was the walk to the bar.

I went to the same barman who I'd reserved my place with and the nod of approval was a relief. He led me to an armchair on the front row. I ordered a burger and bought a very nice bottle of American-style IPA.

How good was this?

I spent the next twenty minutes or so reconnecting with friends and family around the world, all of whom, pretty much, were getting ready to watch the match too.

Come on England!!!

You'd never know this housed the best sports bar in Saint Petersburg

England 1 Colombia 1 (England WIN 4-3 on penalties)

England started brilliantly and for twenty minutes or so, I think they played the best football since 1996. But, ominously, they just couldn't score.

Mid way through the second half, it seems that the Colombians decided to "mix it up" a little. I think this basically means "start getting dirty and disrupt the opposition out of their pattern of play."

There were too many incidents to mention but on one key moment the Colombian defender seemed to head butt Jordan Henderson as he lined up in a wall for an England free-kick. It was the back of his head and it definitely cracked into Henderson's jaw. Now, the ref didn't spot it straight away but must have been informed through his earphones what had happened because the defender was shown a yellow card.

Now, forgive me for being naive but if it was a foul worthy of a yellow then surely that was a penalty. Anyway nothing came of the free kick other than a lot of time wasted. Only six minutes were added on though. Grrr!

Into the second half and finally, at last, England got the goal their superior play deserved. Again it was a penalty. Again due to dirty play (Kane was pretty much rugby tackled to the ground). Again, the Colombian players protested to the referee for minutes like a bunch of six year olds. Again... Kane struck the ball home, this time somewhat fortuitously as he opted to go straight down the goalie's throat, assuming, correctly, he'd dive out of the way.

Time was ticking away. Could this be it?

I was down to my last bit of nail on my right hand. After this, I'd be left with tearing the skin away from my finger tips.

Boro texted me, as we went into the ludicrously little (but now we were grateful) three minutes of injury time...

"No sweat... Pickford hasn't had a save to make."

Now, who's Mr Jinxer, Des?

As if on cue, Colombia fired in their best shot of the match, Pickford saved magnificently and the ball went out for a corner.

That was their first shot on target. Their second (a header) was the equaliser. Even then Trippier almost saved it on the line heading it up onto the underside of the cross bar and, sadly, in the net. Maybe if he hadn't been there, Pickford would have saved it. Who knows.

I was completely gutted.

Yet again.

As always, fate conspired against us. As always, optimism and joy turned to heartache.

What a tragedy. Seconds from victory after a magnificent, brave strong performance and the South Americans, let's face it, through dirty tactics, had overcome and drawn level.

My gloom seems to have been shared by the whole England team who really struggled to get their rhythm back in the first 15 minutes of extra time. But in the second, they had regrouped and began, once again, to dominate.

Unfortunately, though, they couldn't score so - (eeek!) - England faced yet another penalty shoot out.

The BBC did a web page on this a few days ago, noting that of all the teams at the World Cup, we had the worst record in penalty shoot outs. The last time we won one was v Spain, I think, in the Euro 96 tournament, a game I watched with my son, Kes.

Here are the goals as seen in the bar in St Petersburg. As you can hear - not much support for England and a lot of people going for the underdog - at least I hope that was their feeling.

Falcao took the first - Colombia 1 England 0.

Kane took the second, his third (or is it fourth) penalty already in the World Cup. Colombia 1 England 1.

Colombia 2 England 1

Marcus Rashford stepped up to equalise. 2-2.

Then Colombia made it 3-2.

The Jordan Henderson stepped up. The young Chinese England fan, who'd come to sit next to me for moral support, was worried he'd miss and so it turned out.

To be fair, it was pretty well struck and positioned but the goalkeeper just guessed correctly and made a great save.

So, England were 3-2 down with two to go. We'd been here before. Two more goals for Colombia and we were out, yet again.

But wait.

For once, this wasn't the plot.

So, if England could scored they'd be back to level-pegging.

And that's what happened...

Trippier, 3-3.

Now the pressure suddenly was on Colombia. Cocky a few minutes ago, now they had to score with the last kick or face possible elimination themselves.

And so it was all set up for an England penalty shoot out win.

Eric Dier had the responsibility on his shoulders, and he didn't disappoint.

I went bananas and did a little jig around the room, forgetting I was still recording...

After the match, I said farewell to a Serbian Australian from Sydney and an English guy who lives in South Africa and walked back to my dive through a very pleasant evening, after first making sure the Metro station would be open in time for me to catch a train to the famous Findland train station the next morning.

Phew! What a relief.

England v Sweden in the World Cup Quarter Final.