In part two of his World Cup odyssey, our Senior Partner Colin Cohen enjoys the last 16 and quarter-finals, savouring the delights of Moscow, Sochi and St Petersburg while witnessing his beloved England create a little piece of history.
To begin, a recap. We (that is, my cheerful travelling companion John Garratt and myself) have been in Russia for two and a half weeks for the World Cup group stages, having attended nine matches and watched all the others on TV. It’s been a mix of surreal – Germany knocked out, England scoring six in one match – and sublime, featuring fabulous football, friendly hosts, festive fans from all over the world and some fine dining for good measure. Onwards we go …
SATURDAY 30 JUNE
After our first football-free day on Friday, we are suffering withdrawal symptoms. Moscow may be truly picturesque and historic, but you can only do so much sight-seeing, so we are eagerly awaiting today’s start of the knockout stages. Football is back and so is our friend Bruno Chiomento, who has again flown in from Switzerland as he juggles work and World Cup commitments with amazing dexterity. By now we have encyclopedic knowledge of the best bars for watching football, so we settle down for the afternoon and evening to see France put Argentina out of their misery and Uruguay sink Portugal. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo might be going home, but we certainly are not.
SUNDAY 1 JULY
The World Cup has been fantastic so far but today it goes to another level as we head to the Luzhniki Stadium for our first live knockout game, Spain v Russia, pitching one of football’s aristocratic nations against the dogged but limited hosts. However, it’s amazing what a ton of effort and passionate support can do for you. This is why we love football! Russia hang on for a 1-1 draw and, with the roof threatening to come off the stadium, edge through on penalties. Moscow turns into one huge street party, with flag-waving fans and hooting cars parading up and down as if their team had won the actual tournament. Amid the bedlam, we watch on TV as Croatia beat Denmark in another shootout.
MONDAY 2 JULY
Moscow awakes with a hangover but everyone seems to have recovered by early evening when we station ourselves in front of the TV to see Brazil cruise past Mexico. There is much more drama in the later match as Belgium stage an epic comeback against plucky Japan. It’s sayonara Japan, who become the last Asian team to exit the tournament.
TUESDAY 3 JULY
Sweden are playing Switzerland on TV and John and I are praying for Swedish success. Our Swiss friend Bruno is insisting that if his team win we should make an unscheduled 15-hour train journey to Samara in southwestern Russia to watch his team in the quarter-finals. A lucky deflection gives Sweden victory and John and I breathe again. Then we’re off to Spartak Stadium for Colombia v England, where we are vastly outnumbered by raucous South American fans. An engrossing game goes to a shootout and I resign myself to the inevitable – I’ve been present when England have lost on penalties twice before, not to mention Chelsea in the 2008 Champions League final, also in Moscow. This time, England hold their nerve and win a World Cup shootout for the first time in their history. For a moment, we’re tempted by the train journey to the quarter-final against Sweden before sanity prevails.
WEDNESDAY 4 JULY
Enough excitement, time to relax. It’s only our second non-football day since arriving in Russia and we enjoy the break with a leisurely lunch with friends. The weather is grey and wet, which gives us a good excuse to avoid more sight-seeing.
THURSDAY 5 JULY
After 22 nights in the Slavyanka Gulag – sorry, Hotel – we’re released for good behaviour! John and I fly to Sochi, host city of the 2014 Winter Olympics, and check in to the (comparatively) luxurious Park Inn by Radisson. A quick check reveals it has a laundering service, so no more Garratt-led wild goose chases to car washes (see previous blog). Bruno, having departed for Switzerland what seems like only a couple of hours ago, is back with us. He’s flown from Basel to Sochi via Istanbul. Such dedication.
FRIDAY 6 JULY
We enjoy a pleasant guided tour of Sochi, taking in the sites used for the Winter Olympics, before putting our feet up at Bruno’s hotel to see France outclass a disappointing Uruguay. We watch the late match at the Park Inn and it’s a classic, good old Chelsea boy Eden Hazard and his Belgian teammates showing Brazil the exit door.
SATURDAY 7 JULY
By now the reality has dawned on us that England are in a World Cup quarter-final and, in a tournament full of shocks, might actually be capable of winning the whole thing. We watch them play Sweden on TV half-expecting them to revert to type, but a composed display sees Gareth Southgate’s boys prevail 2-0. The dream continues! Then, we stroll to Sochi’s Fisht Stadium for Russia v Croatia. The atmosphere is even more intense than the hosts’ previous game, but Croatia are made of sterner stuff than Spain and win a thrilling match on penalties. It’s well after midnight by the time we escape the stadium and this time there are no flag-waving fans or tooting cars. The party is over for Russia, but for us it continues. Next stop is St Petersburg for the first semi-final.
SUNDAY 8 JULY
We land in St Petersburg hoping to reach our hotel to catch the British Grand Prix on TV, but slow luggage puts paid to that notion. I was last here a year ago, on holiday with my wife, Peggy. On that occasion we went to the ballet, but there’s more chance of Germany winning this World Cup than there is of John and I doing that. Instead I take him on a short evening tour of the city during which I momentarily lose my bearings, causing him to gleefully accuse me of getting us lost. Twelve matches attended, three to go. France v Belgium is next!