World Cup Semi Final
7:00pm Saturday 11th July, 2018
Luzhniki Stadium (Attendance: 78,011)

Croatia 2
Ivan Perisic (68’) Mario Mandzukic (109’)

England 1
Kieran Trippier (5’)

After enduring South Africa 2010, the most soulless sporting event I ever had the misfortune to attend, I vowed never again to go to anything organised by FIFA. Besides, over the years, I had witnessed Frank Lampard’s equalising ‘ghost goal’ when England lost to the Germans in Bloemfontein and watched Waddle blast his penalty over the bar when also losing to Germany, on penalties, during the Semi-final at Italia ‘90. Furthermore, I had seen Beckham get sent off against Argentina at France ‘98, and Rooney do the same against Portugal at Germany ‘06, both games we again lost on penalties. So, despite seeing England win a few of the matches leading up to those epic failures, I was beginning to wonder whether I was a World Cup jinx. Hence, I had given Brazil ‘14 a wide berth. Besides, at the time, stories were rife of unrest in Rio at the corporate corruption of FIFA and the inequities of the awful impoverished conditions of the locals while the government spent billions on stadium infrastructure. Who wanted to be party to that? For similar reasons, I won’t be going to Qatar.

But my ‘I shall not attend’ resolve was waning as England began to progress in Russia. What’s more, despite fears beforehand that the World Cup would be a far-right hooligan bloodbath, the BBC was reporting on the event’s welcoming atmosphere. I will admit to having been somewhat sceptical - I couldn’t imagine the smiling, hugging, happy Russian folk that Dear Old Auntie Beeb was desperate to make me believe were out partying in their droves. In fact, by the time one particular reporter had tried to portray Moscow as the friendliest place on Planet Earth, I was downright incredulous. After all, I had spent the summer of 1995 travelling across Russia, and although I had witnessed some warmth (you just had to give Russians enough time and reason to warm to you; a bit like us English, actually), I had considered Moscow as cold and hostile. Admittedly, my experience is that most big cities, on the first visit, are unfriendly; but Moscow was right up there as one of the unfriendliest.

Nevertheless, Fake Friendly News or not, by the time England had beaten Sweden in the Quarter-final, I had forgotten my boycott and supposed jinx - I was itching to get out to Russia and renew my acquaintance with England at the World Cup. I had been trying to get a Semi-final ticket for about a week before the game against the Swedes - the FIFA website had a resale section, so I reckoned if England had lost, I would have been able to sell it on. However, whenever I tried to buy one of the tickets that occasionally appeared on the FIFA ticketing website, I had been met with the rather unhelpful error message, ‘something went wrong’. Fortunately, despite my being somewhat impatient, the geek in me persuaded me to persevere - I reasoned that the failure was probably due to some shit software FIFA had commissioned on the cheap, where the developer hadn’t quite fathomed how to write a web browser function that communicated properly with the ticketing server. Besides, after England had won their Quarter-final, Russia had lost theirs, so I imagined thousands of disgruntled Russians putting their tickets back up for resale.

Hence, early on Sunday morning, I visited the FIFA website with renewed hope. Three hours later, I still hadn’t managed to bag a ticket (despite lots appearing for sale on the site), and I had to abandon ticket attempts for a while because I had promised my girlfriend I would run her home so we could clear up her backyard and get some of the garden waste up to the tip. “You sure you don’t mind?” she asked, “We can do it another time”. “No problem,” I lied, “but would you mind trying to buy tickets while we drive across town?” Then, I gave it one last try - BOOM! Suddenly, to my excited disbelief, a ticket appeared in my basket. “Wow! You’ve got one!” Kris shrieked, just as excited as me. I was shaking with nerves, and despite that leading to my making a hash of the few online bureaucracies left to hurdle, with Kris’s help, about half-an-hour later, I was the proud owner of a World Cup Semi-final ticket and a Fan ID that allowed me to bypass visa restrictions and visit Russia to watch the football. “Fucking ‘ell, Kris! I’m off to Moscow!” I yelled, arms raised and fists clenched in celebration. Two hours later, I had also managed to book myself a return flight to Sheremetyevo airport. Kris and I even managed to clear the garden and get down the tip. C’mon England!

In 2009, I had bought a ticket to Holland vs England in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, I was unable to go because my youngest daughter had been hospitalised, seriously ill. The English FA were brilliant - they sent her a get well card (she duly did), and gave me Gareth Barry’s shirt from the game. Consequently, I love that shirt and wear it proudly to England matches. So I had that on when, the day before the Semi-final, I took my seat on a flight to Moscow, via Rome. And a few hours later, I had arrived in Russia. It was the early hours of the morning, the day of the game.

The disinterested, surly woman on airport security brought to mind my suspicion as to the legitimacy of that Reporter’s assertion that, since my time there twenty or so years ago, Moscow had morphed into a well of goodwill to all beings. When, after I had phoned the reception of the cheap-as-chips hotel, attempting to book their supposed free shuttle service, only to receive, upon my asking if the Receptionist spoke English, the sarcastic reply: “Net. Do you speak Russian?” I began wondering whether Russian Secret Services had drugged the Reporter. Matters got worse - I hadn’t realised I was liable for roaming charges in Russia, so while using Google Maps trying to locate the hotel that advertised itself as ‘next to the airport’, I managed to incur fees totalling nearly £80. What’s more, the place was only next to the fucking airport if you had wings, because dissecting the two was a large motorway. Hence, for the same price as the cost of the cheap-as-chips room plus roaming charges, I could’ve walked across the road from Sheremetyevo and slept in a rather nice Radisson Hotel. There, I’d have been asleep long before I and a few other England supporters on the flight, who had also fallen for the false advertising, had managed to book a cab and find the shit hole that had duped us. And I won’t even bother trying to describe the God Awful Breakfast we were served later that morning - it was beyond description anyway. But I will say this - after only a couple of hours kip, I needed real coffee, not instant Nescafe with condensed fucking milk.

When I arrived at Sheremetyevo airport, I had gathered up a stray England supporter and offered him the spare bed in my room. It was an offer Will took up gladly, of course, and even though he quickly realised the hotel was a bit shit, he didn’t seem to hold it against me. I soon learned that Will was the cousin of England’s third choice keeper, Nicky Pope. “Cool!” I told him, “So he got you a ticket, then?” “Er, no”, Will replied, sadly, “He could only get two and some other relatives of his bagged those. I’ve got to run into town and pick my ticket up from some Russian dude”. So, Will, me, and three other English lads escaped the Hellish Hotel by piling into a cab and making the thirty-minute journey into Moskva.

Will met a sharply dressed Russian businessman and parted with eight thousand Roubles in exchange for a Semi-final ticket. The rest of us had to get our tickets at a FIFA collection centre, somewhere near Red Square, so we made our way down into Moscow’s Metro system for the short trip there. Supporters with a valid Fan ID were supposed to get free travel on trains, but an officious lady staffing the ticket gate wouldn’t accept our group’s paper slips, which we could swap later for the full laminated Fan ID complete with corporate style lanyard. So we had to buy Metro tickets. Thankfully, they were much cheaper than their extortionate London Underground equivalents. The Moscow Metro is different to London’s system in other ways, too; for example, it is resplendent with grand chandeliers and formidable statues to past heroes. It’s also immaculately clean, and trains arrive frequently. And whereas, to maximise profit, the owners of UK’s privatised railway network have automated many jobs into oblivion, Moscow’s system is staffed by hundreds. That’s probably a vestige of the Communist State’s idea of full employment, whereby, at some stations, there are little kiosks at the top and bottom of its escalators, staffed by people doing who knows what. But, unlike the thousands of homeless people freezing to death on the UK’s streets, I imagine they can afford food and somewhere safe to sleep. State-sponsored inefficiencies have their plus side.

By about lunchtime, all our group had got their tickets and their official Fan IDs. Yay! So we made our way to Red Square to take the obligatory photographs in front of the Kremlin and St. Basil’s Cathedral.

St. Basil's Cathedral

With all the admin’ out the way, there was nothing left to do but eat, drink lots of beer and, later, watch a football match. So we made our way up a Red Square side street to a pub where loads of English fans had gathered. While the rest of the lads found a table to order food, I went to the bar to get drinks. Twenty minutes later, and despite the place only being moderately busy, I still hadn’t been served. What’s more, there was about a dozen staff on duty; unfortunately, only two were pouring drinks, and one of them was serving those Waiting tables. The other guy pulling pints was sticking determinedly to his corner of the bar. One of the waitresses even began mocking my desperate plea for a beer: “Please, I just want a Guinness”, she sneered, mimicking my desperation. Clearly, Modern Customer Service hadn’t yet caught hold, here. Eventually, however, I barged my way across to the barman’s corner and got served. And we managed to order food of some sort, too. Afterwards, I got chatting to an English fan on the table next to ours. I moaned about the bar staff: “Mate, everyone learned a month ago that bar service in Russia is shit. The English lads outside aren’t bothering with this place - instead, they’re buying takeaways from a supermarket, five minutes away”. We decided to do the same. The English support likes a drink, so God knows how much cash that bar missed out on, but fuck ‘em.

Outside, the English fans were singing to full effect, paying homage to the excellent Harry Maguire, with, Your Defence is Terrifying, sang to the tune of Gala’s 1990 dance classic, Freed from desire. That’s a take on the Wigan’s fan’s, ‘Will Gregg’s on fire’, which the Northern Irish support used at Euro ‘16. Then there was, England’s going all the Way, to the chorus of Earth Wind and Fire’s late ‘70’s, September. Also, Southgate You’re the One, a take on Atomic Kitten’s new Millenium Poptastic, Whole Again. Finally, there was, Don’t Take Me Home, to Billy Ray Cyrus’s 1993 country classic, Achy Breaky Heart (that last video was shot outside the bar where we were drinking, but I can’t spot our group, unfortunately). Mostly, it was all good-natured, but the mood changed when a small group of Croatians confronted some English fans on the periphery. One gnarled Croat squared up to a young English lad, who didn’t take a backward step, so for a few fleeting seconds, it looked like punches were going to be thrown. Thankfully, twenty or so heavily armed Russian Police soon rushed in to diffuse any threat of violence - there had been no sign of them beforehand, so God knows from where they came. Shortly afterwards, the Croatians had been moved on, which restored the party atmosphere.

However, a little later, a German couple ignored my caution to not walk through the crowd of English. When they were met with a volley of beer and a chorus of auf wiedersehen, I think they realised they should have heeded my warning. Thankfully, they Crossed the Rubicon wet, but unharmed.

An hour or so before kick off, we made the short trip to the Luzhniki Stadium. The atmosphere on the Metro was brilliant. It was packed; full of English and Croatian fans, all of whom were in fine voice. The escalator leading up the concourse outside the ground rang out with a chorus of “Eng-er-land, Eng-er-land, Eng-er-land…”. The Croatian’s responded. I loved it. It’s hard to describe the magnitude of a huge sporting event such as a World Cup Semi-final, but the anticipation is palpable; if you ever get the chance to attend something like that, forget the expense, and go because the emotion of it all will stay with you long afterwards. I still have a sense of the camaraderie of the ten thousand English fans packed into the bottom tier behind the goal for the England vs Cameroon Quarter-final at the Stadio San Paolo, Naples, during Italia ‘90.

Once through the many security gates, Will and I grabbed a Budweiser, before making our way to our seats. Mine was in the posh section, and in hindsight, I probably should’ve found my way ‘round to the main English support, behind the goal to my left. I think, where I was, the expected behaviour was to applaud, quietly. But fuck that - England were playing in the World Cup Semi-final - I was going to be loud and proud!

Once both teams had come out and sang the national anthems, the game kicked off, and I was urging England on. When, after a couple of minutes, I briefly sat down, an English lad, about three rows behind me, told me to keep seated. “Get lost, mate!” I replied. “It’s the fucking World Semi-final, and my team are playing! There’s about as much chance of me staying quiet as there is of your missus actually fancying you”. That got a bit of a laugh from the bemused Russians sat around us. I continued: “If you want to sit quietly, the fucking opera’s ten minutes up the road! But I warn you, even there the audience might stand up and applaud. Especially at the end”. That got more laughter. “You and I are having it out at halftime,” he snarled. “I look forward to it,” I lied, before singing another chorus of “Harry Maguire, your defence is terrifying”.

Five minutes in, and England were one-up following a fabulous Kieran Trippier free kick. BOOM!

The Russian’s in the crowd were booing loudly whenever the Croatian Centre Half, Domagoj Vida, touched the ball. Apparently, he had made some pro-Ukrainian salute at a previous game, and that hadn’t gone down well in a country that had recently annexed the Crimea. However, a lad sat in the row behind me was cheering on the Croats, loudly. When he started swearing at Henderson for making a hefty tackle on Luka Modrić, I’d had enough: “Mate, are you Croatian?” I asked. I knew he wasn’t, so the question was rhetorical, and I wasn’t particularly interested in hearing his reply. None the less, he offered one, telling me something about his sister living there, I think. “Mate,” I said, interrupting, “my next-door neighbour’s dog ate a sausage once, but that doesn’t mean I support Germany!” Judging by the puzzlement on the faces around me, that one was a little bit too Leftfield. Ah well - a bit of Leftism is alright; besides, you couldn’t fault the attempted humour’s Rhythm and Stealth! Nevertheless, I was a little embarrassed, so I looked for an Alternative Light Source.

Meanwhile, England was playing well and in control. Then, on thirty minutes, a fantastic pass through the Croatian defence, to England’s top scorer Captain Kane, saw the striker on the left corner of the six-yard box, with just the keeper to beat. The chance couldn’t have fallen to anyone better - what an opportunity to double the lead, and surely put England into the final! “Leather it, ‘arry!” I pleaded, jumping out of my seat. He didn’t take my advice, and the keeper saved Kane’s tame side-footed first attempt. Luckily, the ball rebounded to the striker, who created a nice angle with a great first touch, before smashing the ball goal-bound with his second. Unfortunately, the keeper got the slightest of touches, deflecting the ball onto the outside of the post and out. Harry had blown it. “Bollox!” I muttered, under my breath. I stood, with my hands on my head, for a good while after; I was gutted at the miss and struggling to let go of the disappointment.

Half-time came, and the guy who should’ve been at the opera met me on the aisle, as promised, after which we shook hands and agreed to disagree on how one should behave at public sporting events.

The second behalf began and shortly afterwards, the Croat’ loving Russian dude appeared back in his seat. “Alright, Fatboy?” I mocked. “Are you late back ‘cause you were downstairs eating a double burger and large fries?” More laughter, but he looked crestfallen at the jibe, and I experienced a pang of regret at the harsh joke. I got over it, though. By this time, England was visibly tiring, and the talented Croatian midfield was beginning to take control. When Perisic equalised midway through the half, the goal had an air of inevitability about it. When it went in, I glared at matey-boy, daring him to celebrate; he didn’t. Instead, he gave me an apologetic shrug of the shoulders. Bollox - the game looked to be slipping away from England - I reckon they did well to reach ninety minutes without conceding further.

Before extra-time started, Russian dude returned with a peace offering, in the form of a beer. I was having none of it, though.

As extra-time progressed, it became apparent the best England could hope for was a penalty shootout. But, ten minutes before the end, that hope was dashed by a Mandzukic second. England had lost. Again. This time, Russian dude tried consoling me with a friendly arm around my shoulder, but I wasn’t having any of that, either, so I brushed him off with a shrug.

I left, resigned to the inevitability of yet another epic English failure. The mood outside was strange - full of dejected English fans, as well as Croatians, who realised that, for the moment, they were safer not celebrating. I had arranged to meet Will and share a cab to the airport. That was a silly idea, though, since meeting one amongst seventy-odd-thousand was never going to happen. Then I realised I probably didn’t have enough Roubles to get a cab by myself, so instead, I made my way to the Metro. I hadn’t done anything as sensible as pre-plan my trip back to Sheremetyevo, so all I had was a vague idea that the airport was north of Moscow. The Grey Line 9, Serpukhovsko–Timiryazevskaya, seemed to head in that direction, and the station at the end of the line, Altufyevo, looked vaguely like the Cyrillic for ‘airport’. “That’ll do!”, I thought, so I made my way there. What was I thinking? When I exited Altufyevo, all I found was a grim-looking Russian suburb, replete with oppressive concrete tower blocks, and no sign of any fucking airport anywhere. I did, however, manage to wave down a cab. The Central-Asian looking driver spoke no English, but thankfully, he was much more patient than I, so he didn’t seem to mind when it took him ten minutes to work out where I was going. He wanted 1300 Roubles - I only had 600. Fortunately, I had a £20 note in my pocket, which, at the time, was worth about 1600 roubles. Unfortunately, the cab driver had never before seen a £20 note. However, he was a sharp cookie, so he did some quick FOREX calculations, via, and fathomed that he was quids in. And about twenty minutes later, I arrived at Sheremetyevo airport, three hours before my flight back to Heathrow, via Rome. Phew.

No sign of Will there - he’d either caught his flight already or missed it entirely (it turned out to be the former). I spent my few remaining Roubles on some food - I was hoping that might line my stomach and help me sober up. Then I checked in and took my seat at the gate. A few minutes later, another England fan arrived, and we spent the next two hours lamenting the missed opportunity: “If only Kane had taken his chance to shine…”. At 5 a.m, I boarded the flight. I spent the first few minutes onboard trying to decide whether I was still drunk, hungover, or just tired. When my stomach turned as the aeroplane lurched into the sky, I decided on drunk. A few minutes later, feeling awful as the plane bumped its way through some turbulence, I went for hungover. But when the next thing I knew we had arrived in Rome, I realised I must have slept because I was tired, after all. And by the time I boarded the London bound flight, three hours later and loaded with coffee, I was positively chipper.

Having landed, I had a moment wondering whether I had made a terrible mistake and arrived somewhere much friendlier than London because I thought I witnessed someone being kind to a group of foreign tourists (who didn’t speak much English). Luckily, a tube sign confirmed I was indeed back at Heathrow, so I decided, due to my lack of sleep and caffeine overdose, I must’ve hallucinated that. There followed a mad dash back to Brighton, after which I jumped in my car to fetch the kids from school. I arrived just in time for my eldest daughter to emerge from the school gate: “Hello, daddy! Did you have a nice time?” I was too tired to decide whether I had, or not: “Not sure I can explain, right now, darling”, I replied. “One day, I might write a story about it all”. “It’s rubbish we lost, though, daddy. Kinda weird to know you were there, too” she told me, as her sister joined us. “Ah well,” I said, while we made our way back to the car. “Worse things happen at sea, I suppose. Now, what would you two like to do on Sunday, instead of watching the final?”

I watched the final, after all. Vive la France! Perhaps, one day, I will get to witness England play that game. They might even win it! Whether I should go, though, is another matter entirely…

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Croatia vs England by Steve Huckle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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