Kazan, July 5-6, Brazil - Belgium
Kazan is a city of murals: Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi…and rather belatedly, Neymar. Yes, as we arrive early in the morning in the capital of Tatarstan, the last touches are being put to a giant mural of the Brazilian talisman opposite the team hotel. TV Globo is on hand to register the drama. My travel buddy Fernando Valeika is never shy of any banter: he hums the ‘Imperial March,’ mocking the monopoly position of South America’s biggest TV broadcaster. It’s not the last time Fernando shall do this.
We head into town, meet Rory Smith and go for lunch. After 45 minutes, it bizarrely transpires that our lunch order can’t be met. We muse about what went wrong, but the reality is that outside the Moscow-St Petersburg axis, Russia is still not accustomed to a service society. Consumerism and service exist, but have their limits. The order of the day is to wait, something journalists don’t like.
The next day has more waiting in store at restaurants - and at a parking lot. Fernando ordered a BlaBlaCar, a carpooling system at democratic prices in Russia, to drive us to Samara, but at 3.40am our driver Dennis doesn’t turn up. Over the phone, Fernando aims a few cuss words at Dennis; Michael, a colleague from the New Zealand Herald, yawns and I protest against Fernando’s plans to book a new BlaBlaCar at 6am. It is light again and we are all a bit tired. We call a taxi and on the spot - with a bit of convincing - Alexey decides to take us to Russia’s space capital. Alexey drives fast and furious. He smokes nonstop, much to the dismay of those in the back seats, and plays Russian house music throughout the trip. He gets us there in 3.5 hours, which must be something of a new record - just in time, in fact, to take another drag from his cigarette and head back to Kazan.
Samara, July 7, England - Sweden
In downtown Samara, a nondescript door with no handle is the back entrance to an anonymous tenement block. Locals and visitors never made much of it, but in 1991 the innocent entrance was revealed to be a nuclear bunker, built as Joseph Stalin's last refuge. With two shafts and a depth of 40 meters the bunker can withstand a 1,500 kiloton demolition.
As the Germans advanced and the spectre of Moscow falling into enemy hands loomed large, the USSR’s State Defense Committee considered moving the capital to Samara, but that never transpired. Neither did Stalin ever need to enter the bunker, a complex, 192 steps down, with fake windows and fake doors. “If you take the wrong door, you will be shot,” the tour guide jokes. The irreverence is striking, but the football fans in attendance appreciate the joke. Mexican, Brazilians, Swedes and English have visited the bunker this week. Samara, once a closed-off city, like Nizhny Novgorod, is enjoying its moment in the limelight.
I go for a spot of breakfast. After 30 minutes, the waitress informs me they couldn’t find salad in the grocery store next door to accompany my Eggs Benedict. The restaurant is in a state of confusion over this salad. I am equally miffed and amused. Food in Kazan and Samara, I guess it’s not supposed to be.
At the spaceship-like stadium the atmosphere is strangely sedate for a World Cup quarter-final. The logistics have prevented plenty of England and Sweden fans from coming to Samara. I count no more than a thousand Scandinavians in the stands. The English gurgle and sing their same old songs, but with renewed excitement. They all want football to come home once more.