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World Cup proving a Russian revelation

Boase Cohen & Collins Senior Partner Colin Cohen is in Russia for the World Cup. Here, he reflects on the group stages – nine matches attended and all the others watched on TV – and picks out a few footballing and cultural highlights.

WEDNESDAY 13 JUNE

Passport? Check. Hospitality passes? Check. Fan ID? Check. England shirt? Check. Packed and ready, I head to Hong Kong airport, Moscow-bound and looking forward to more than a month of football heaven. The flight is pleasant, Aeroflot look after me superbly and I make good time to my base for the next three weeks, the Slavyanka Hotel in Suvorovskaya Square. It’s Moscow for sure, but it could be a hotel in any major city in South America given the number of fans from that region in the lobby and adjacent bars and restaurants. After checking in and meeting up with my good friend Bruno Chiomento, we take an evening stroll and meet supporters from across Europe, Africa and Asia. The atmosphere, as always ahead of a major sporting event, is electric.

THURSDAY 14 JUNE

Our Russian hosts have been friendly, helpful and welcoming while, at the same time, talking down their team’s chances. The national squad is in a sorry state, they tell us. Indeed, when we arrive at the impressive Luzhniki Stadium for the first match between Russia and Saudi Arabia, we speak with one local journalist who confides he’s wagered money on the hosts to score zero goals in their three group matches. Ha! How wrong he is. Opening ceremony singer Robbie Williams isn’t the only star wearing red this evening, Russia run amok and hammer five past their hapless opponents. Take That, Saudi Arabia!

FRIDAY 15 JUNE

No games to attend but three to watch on TV, so we need to find a good bar. By now, Bruno and I have been joined by Hong Kong lawyer Greg Knowles. We take advice from our ultra-helpful hosts and settle into the suberb John Donne Pub, a football fan’s dream, which stays packed throughout the afternoon and evening. Portugal superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, whom I last saw lifting the Euro 2016 trophy in Paris, sets the World Cup alight with a hat-trick against Spain, including a brilliant late equaliser. Cue bedlam in the John Donne.

Groups 1

The three amigos – with Greg Knowles (centre) and John Garratt (right) on the Moscow underground.

SATURDAY 16 JUNE

Ronaldo has thrown down the gauntlet and we expect his great Argentinian rival Lionel Messi to pick it up, so we make our way with much anticipation to Moscow’s other major football venue, Spartak Stadium, for the match against minnows Iceland. I have painful memories of Iceland, recalling that stunning night in Nice two years ago when they knocked England out of Euro 2016. Now it is Messi’s turn to suffer, he misses a penalty as Argentina stumble to a 1-1 draw. Before and after, we catch the day’s other three matches on TV. Whoever said you can have too much of a good thing?

SUNDAY 17 JUNE

Back to the Luzhniki for what we expect will be a comfortable victory for world champions Germany over Mexico. Like all true England followers, we’ve become honorary Mexicans for the day and are delighted to see “our” team pull off a shock 1-0 victory. We experience the famed Mexican beer shower – their fans throw their plastic beer cups in the air when the team scores – and leave the stadium soaked but satisfied. Naturally, I offer my commiserations to various Germans as we file out.

Groups 2

Germany v Mexico – the world champions line up in confident mood.

MONDAY 18 JUNE

One of the must-do items on a trip to Moscow is to dine at the famed Café Pushkin, a five-star restaurant that, to quote Time magazine, “is situated in a building that was renovated to look exactly like a Russian aristocrat's home circa 1825”. By now my good friend and reluctant butler John Garratt has flown in from London to join our group and we enjoy a fabulous lunch before returning to the John Donne for the afternoon and evening matches. In time-honoured fashion, England make hard work of Tunisia but all is forgiven when they snatch a late winner.

TUESDAY 19 JUNE

I’ve been receiving regular text updates from English Premier League referee Martin Atkinson, who is travelling to the World Cup the hard way. Martin and two friends are cycling from the UK to England’s final group match against Belgium in Kaliningrad to raise money for charity and Boase Cohen & Collins is sponsoring them, having also organised a fund-raising lunch with Martin in Hong Kong several weeks previously. I can only imagine his thoughts when I let him know that while he’s slogging along an endless German highway I’m enjoying pre-match hospitality at the Spartak Stadium, where Senegal are defeating Poland.

Groups 3

This is one way of dressing for a football match.

WEDNESDAY 20 JUNE

I’ve been loving the hospitality thus far but the passes Bruno has produced for Portugal v Morocco ramp it up to another level. They include the best seats I’ve ever had at a football match, right on the halfway line. We’re at the game with my Hong Kong Football Club friends Mick Lonergan and Robert Grome, who are delighted to accept my more basic hospitality passes while I lord it with Bruno. Ronaldo scores an early winner.

THURSDAY 21 JUNE

No major football tournament is complete without a drama involving John Garratt and laundry. Two years ago, he left my unwashed clothing at a hotel in Lyon. This time, with the Slavyanka’s laundering service suspended, he locates a suitable place via Google Maps and we go there. It turns out to be a car wash. Fortunately, and amid much hilarity, the staff there direct us to a proper laundry and the boy Garratt is off the hook. Then we find a bar to watch the day’s matches and, just like our clothing, Argentina get taken to the cleaners as Croatia run out 3-0 winners.

Groups 4

It’s not all football – sightseeing in Red Square.

FRIDAY 22 JUNE

We haven’t visited a top-tier restaurant for at least four days so we enjoy a fabulous lunch at the famed Oblomov, where the décor resembles a Russian noble’s country house and the staff wear traditional dress and fall over themselves to help you. Brazilian prima donna Neymar also does plenty of falling over as his team squeeze past Costa Rica.

SATURDAY 23 JUNE

Back to Spartak Stadium for live football and Belgium are hugely impressive in beating Tunisia 5-2, which means England will have to score at least five against Panama tomorrow to go top of the group. No chance of that. More importantly, we pick up our laundry and then find a new place to watch South Korea v Mexico, the appropriately named Tipsy Bar.

SUNDAY 24 JUNE

John and I are up at 4:30am for the three and a half hour train journey to Nizhny Novgorod for England v Panama. At the stadium, we run into some fans we got to know during the England-Wales match at Euro 2016. England are unrecognisable from the clueless mob who stumbled around France two years ago – they are five goals up at half-time and run out 6-1 winners. It is a surreal experience for those present. We fly back to Moscow, catching more matches in the airport lounge and then our hotel. Amid the football, we’ve also seen Lewis Hamilton win the French Grand Prix and England whitewash the Aussies at cricket. It’s been quite a day for English sports fans.

Groups 5

With John Garratt before watching England thrash Panama.

MONDAY 25 JUNE

Time for some work. I’ve been invited to attend the annual Summer Drinks gathering of the Russian Institute of Modern Arbitration. It’s an excellent networking event and everyone is welcoming and sociable, even though the Uruguay-Russia match has just finished and the hosts have been walloped 3-0. Russia have still qualified for the knockout stages so no one seems too bothered.

TUESDAY 26 JUNE

Here we are at the Luzhniki for Denmark v France. What could be a great occasion turns out to be a low-key game, the tournament’s first goalless draw as both teams know the result will see them progress to the knockout stages. There is much more drama later on TV as Argentina steal a late win against Nigeria to avoid being eliminated.

WEDNESDAY 27 JUNE

The day begins with a pleasant sight-seeing cruise on the Moscow River before we go to the Spartak Stadium for Serbia v Brazil, but the game is preceded by two momentous events. First, Germany crash out of the World Cup! They are humbled 2-0 by South Korea in a display of ineptitude that reminds me of England of old. The hospitality tent, which is packed with Brazilians, goes ballistic when Korea score their two injury-time goals. Then, I hear that Martin Atkinson has arrived in Kaliningrad at the end of his 1,700-mile cycle trek. He and his friends have raised £56,000 – a truly awesome achievement. Brazil, meanwhile, dispatch a disappointing Serbia.

THURSDAY 28 JUNE

The General Director of the Russian Institute of Modern Arbitration, Andrey Gorlenko, has kindly invited John and myself to his home to watch England play Belgium in their Group G decider. Of course, I always want England to win, but I know if they lose they will face Colombia in the round of 16 at Spartak Stadium on Tuesday, a match for which we have passes. Both managers rest key players and the resulting contest is hardly a white-knuckle ride, Belgium running out 1-0 winners. Andrey is a fabulous host, serving up some fine Russian cuisine and generous quantities of vodka. This, and the prospect of attending England v Colombia, means watching my national team lose has never been so bearable.

Groups 6

Andrey Gorlenko opens his home to John and myself for England v Belgium.

FRIDAY 29 JUNE

No football! It’s a rest day before the knockout stages, which gives me time to reflect on a quite brilliant fortnight. After Russian hooligans ran amok at Euro 2016, I wasn’t the only one who approached this tournament with some trepidation, but our hosts have been magnificent and we haven’t seen even a hint of trouble. The camaraderie among fans is wonderful and everyone is enjoying this festival of football. Our next live match is Spain v Russia on Sunday. Bring it on!

Part II: This tournament is a knockout success

Part III: A feast in the East