July 10, St Petersburg, France - Belgium
Itís the business end of the tournament, the last four, as the tournament is slowly reaching its climax. On July 16th, a black hole awaits - no more World Cup action for another four years. Thatís 1460 days, 35040 hours or 2102400 minutes of pure anguish and so itís time to savour every minute of the Russia tournament, even though knockout stages generally arenít a catalogue for free-flowing, high-scoring games.
In a first major cock-up I have forgotten to apply for the semi-final in St Petersburg. I arrive early to enrol on the waiting list. As 8pm approaches, the crowd grows at the ticket distribution counter and utter chaos ensues with pushing and shoving as the counter nearly buckles under the pressure. I get my mixed zone sad, but then realise that I have never put my name down for the match ticket. Cold sweat breaks out, but with some Belgian charm, the Red Devils are playing after all, I get a match ticket.
Inside the ground the atmosphere is strangely sedate. The Gulf of Finland no longer offers the rambunctious and roaring sounds of the Iran-Morocco game, or the Argentina - Nigeria match. Belgium - France feels like a pre-season friendly. Brazilians dominate in the stands, but they watch on lethargically. They had expected a different team in this semi-final.
July 11, Moscow, England - Croatia
The scenario is repeated in the Russian capital and the absence of the South American fans is keenly felt at the tournament. Much has been made of the South American teams and their collective failure to live up to the usual lofty expectations. This yearís tournament is the first in history that hasnít featured either Brazil, Argentina or Germany in the final four, but we canít complain about the fans from South America.
Latin America provided the beating heart of the World Cup. If the Peruvians - all of 60,000 if official figures are to be believed - owned the group stages, then the Brazilians have grown to dominate the knockout stages, appearing in number at almost every game that has taken place these past few weeks.
They are still in good spirits, but my colleagues are a little less so. They are worn out as nights shorten and time to relax comes at a premium. They sigh, cough and ruminate about the tournament. The last few days include a barrage of press conferences - the Technical Study Group, headed by Brazilís 1994 World Cup winning coach Carlos Alberto Parreira, details the tactical and technical aspects of the tournament, Gianni Infantino says the perception has changed about Russia and lauds the tournament as the best ever World Cup, the local organisers further beat the drum for the tournament Russia has put on and Qatar presents its plan for 2022 again.
Back at the apartment, there are plenty of signs as well that the World Cup is reaching its conclusion - and perhaps needs to come to an end: the internet is intermittent and there is no longer any hot water. It comes as a surprise, but it shouldnít: in summertime Russian cities shut off hot water service to residences for a week or two. There is even a website to check when itís your neighbourhoodís turn. In Russian cities, heat and hot water are provided centrally and not from individual hot water heaters or furnace units, so during the summer weeks annual maintenance occurs. In Novatorav, the residential area of my flat, water will be shut off until the 18th of July, a day after I will have left Russia.