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A feast in the East – football, food and fun

In the third and final installment of his World Cup adventure, our Senior Partner Colin Cohen travels from Saint Petersburg to Moscow as he watches the semi-finals and final while enjoying the culinary delights of both cities.

Before we start, a quick review of our first three and a half weeks. The intrepid John Garratt and myself have attended 12 matches thus far and watched all the others on TV. We’ve dined in style, met many friends old and new, and savoured the fantastic hospitality of our wonderful Russian hosts. One week to go …

MONDAY 9 JULY

If it’s Monday, this must be Saint Petersburg. After two weeks in Moscow, a quick excursion to Nizhny Novgorod and three nights in Sochi, we awake to our first full day in Russia’s second-largest city. I’ve been here several times before but it’s John’s first visit so, laughing off his wild allegation that I got us lost during a short stroll the previous evening, I volunteer to act as his guide. We enjoy a river cruise and bus tour which helps us appreciate the culture and history of this scenic city. By coincidence, our old friend Andrey Gorlenko, General Director of the Russian Institute of Modern Arbitration, is visiting from Moscow and he takes us to a shots bar to kick off the evening and then hosts us to a fabulous dinner. In summertime, Saint Petersburg is the City of White Nights, its northern location meaning the sun sets only briefly, and we make the most of it with a long, long evening.

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Brazil may be out, but their fans are still going strong in Saint Petersburg.

TUESDAY 10 JULY

Regular readers of this blog will know of our Swiss friend Bruno Chiomento, who keeps appearing as if by magic as he commutes between his homeland and the World Cup. This time he arrives by train from Moscow, so we meet him at the station and enjoy a magnificent lunch at the Four Seasons followed by drinks in the top-floor bar at the Sofitel, where we take in the spectacular views of the city. Excitement is building for the France v Belgium semi-final and, after locating our pre-booked car and driver, we head to the stadium. Here, we run into issues. The driver lacks the required fan ID and the no-nonsense security guards won’t let him approach the stadium, even though we have a parking permit, so we end up hitching a ride with a busload of Chinese fans. Like many semi-finals, the match is tense rather than thrilling and France, more pragmatic than a disappointing Belgium team, are 1-0 winners. Minus our car, it’s a long journey back to the city centre and we’re ready to sleep, but Bruno doesn’t have a hotel, just a 4:45am flight back to Moscow. We gallantly keep him company until exhaustion sets in around 2:00am, when we pack him off in a taxi to the airport.

WEDNESDAY 11 JULY

Our four-hour train journey to Moscow proves eventful. As we pull out from the station the guards come to check tickets and John, who has meticulously booked all our flights and train trips without a hitch so far, is brusquely informed his seat belongs to someone else. He is forbidden from ordering food and is told he will be ejected at the next station. I voice my sympathy as I tuck into my breakfast. John, though, is nothing if not resourceful and produces emails proving he has booked the tickets, eliciting a gruff apology from the guards. Arriving back in Moscow, we have opted against further punishment at the Slavyanka Gulag (see previous blog) and booked the more comfortable Hotel Ibis. After checking in, we meet up again with Bruno plus son Michael and brother Sandro – AKA Young Bruno and Brother Bruno respectively – and head to the Luzhniki Stadium for England’s moment of truth, the semi-final against Croatia. Andrey Gorlenko is also with us since we’ve found him a spare pass and, with Russia out, he’s backing England. Five minutes in and Andrey is cheering with the rest of us as England take the lead but, ominously, their experienced opponents begin to take over the game. A second-half equaliser and extra-time winner spell the end for Gareth Southgate’s young team who simply run out of energy and ideas.

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John Garratt gets in the mood ahead of England v Croatia.

THURSDAY 12 JULY

Despite England’s exit, we awake in good spirits and accompany “the Brunos” on a bus tour before enjoying a fabulous lunch at the iconic Metropol Hotel. We carry on into the evening with a return to acclaimed restaurant Oblamov, which we visited two weeks ago, only this time we are a much larger group including old Hong Kong friends Mick Lonergan, Robert Grome and Andy Hunter. It’s quite a feast. Afterwards, the older guys settle for a gentle nightcap while the more youthful brigade, including Young Bruno, announce they’re going out clubbing. We’re jealous.

FRIDAY 13 JULY

With Bruno’s young pup still sound asleep, we head off to lunch at the White Rabbit, another amazing restaurant in a city full of them. The fine dining continues in the evening at celebrated seafood restaurant Erwin – by which time Young Bruno is back with us – and we finish in the Mercedes Bar on the 31st floor of the Radisson Royal Hotel. We spot a spare table, except a waiter points to the “Reserved” sign and says it has been booked by Mr Somebody or Other. “I’m his good friend!” I tell the waiter, who dutifully allows us to sit down and order a bottle of champagne. We can’t put it on Mr Somebody or Other’s account, unfortunately, but he fails to show and we keep the table to ourselves.

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“The Brunos” – Bruno Chiomento (centre) with son Michael (left) and brother Sandro.

SATURDAY 14 JULY

Aware that we’re flying home in two days, we do some shopping for souvenirs and presents and I’m delighted to find a store called Colin’s. I show them my name in my passport but, alas, no discount. Come evening time we watch the England v Belgium third-place playoff in an Irish pub called O’Donoghue’s. After the highs of scoring six against Panama, winning a penalty shootout against Colombia and coming within 22 minutes of reaching the final, England bow out of Russia with a whimper, losing 2-0.

SUNDAY 15 JULY

Our 15th and last match, the World Cup final! France are favourites but Croatia have shown remarkable tenacity to get this far and nobody dares count them out. It turns out to be hugely entertaining on all levels – the highest-scoring final since 1966, including an own-goal and a contentious penalty, plus a pitch invasion by four members of Russian punk activist group Pussy Riot. France run out deserving 4-2 winners and I’m happy for them – and for my French son-in-law Vincent Hak – having been present at their Euro 2016 heartache in Paris. The heavens open before the trophy presentation and assorted world leaders and football bigwigs get soaked while we stay dry in the stands. The rain has stopped by the time we emerge from hospitality and we return to our hotel for a nightcap and to reflect on a memorable tournament.

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Allez les Bleus! France are crowned world champions.

MONDAY 16 JULY

With the football finished, it’s back to work. John and I are collected from our hotel by Dmitry Sherstobitov, Partner in Moscow law firm Sameta Tax & Legal Consulting which, like Boase Cohen & Collins, is a member of global legal referral organisation Ally Law. We go to the Sameta offices, where I give a talk to some of their clients, before Dmitry’s driver takes us to the airport and I check in for my Aeroflot flight back to Hong Kong. Goodbye Russia, it’s been brilliant.

Part I: World Cup proving a Russian revelation

Part II: This tournament is a knockout success