So, here I am on my fourth tour of duty supporting England, having served in 1990, 2010, 2014 and now 2018.
Each visit was accompanied with a mixture of excitement and slight trepidation and Russia 2018 was no different.
I wanted to begin with the end in mind, I wanted to leave on day 12 of my tour with England sitting on top of the table with two wins and an opportunity to fly into the final game against Belgium riding high on a wave of controlled hope and optimism, so job done!
But this fourth tour was about so much more than this. I’m now a middle-aged man with beautiful, wonderful grandchildren and I’m viewing this tournament through a completely different lens.
As a practising Muslim, I wanted to report back not only my thoughts on the tournament but also a country that, 30 years ago under Soviet rule, actually had operating laws on state atheism.
“Vy obsluzhivayete khalyal'noye myaso?” Google-translated means: “Do you serve halal meat?”
This was the key sentence I came armed with and as an avid eater of meat, my thoughts turned to another fortnight of scratching around for the vegetarian option.
The backdrop of my fourth World Cup, if you believe what you read, was the message: “don’t travel”.
This was truly a case of fake news. I was expecting gangs of marauding bare-fist fighting hooligans on every “prospekt”.
Instead, when landing at Volgograd airport, I was greeted with cheerleader style city and FIFA volunteers welcoming us to Volgograd. A stark contrast indeed.
City one was Moscow. Full of history and architecture and the one image which will stay with me forever more is the faces of local senior Muscovites looking bewildered at the sheer joy and happiness of guitar-playing, drum-banging Mexicans, Argentinians and Tunisians stomping around their streets. The World Cup has certainly arrived!
As for the halal question, two days in and it’s the salad and pizza option. Please also note, for even more of the sympathy vote, I had only finished 30 days of fasting after the month of Ramadan. Up to now, no joy although the good news was how hospitable and accommodating the locals were.
Game one for England, and city two for me, was Volgograd. Formally the old Stalingrad, this whole city is a monument to that incredible battle of Stalingrad when in the space of nine months, nearly an estimated 1.2 million people sacrificed their lives in holding up the German advance east in the Second World War.
We arrived with guarded optimism. Would Gareth really send out a team that was prepared to express themselves and play with freedom? Would we see the DNA in action? Credit to one and all, watching Harry Maguire warm-up with the first 11 was a sure-fire answer and we were going bold and leaving the experience of Cahill and Jones on the bench.
The lads certainly gave us a dominant performance which eventually saw the indomitable Harry Kane grab a brace including a last-gasp winner, three points and we’re on our way!
Reflections after the game were that it was a deserved victory and what was more impressive is the fact I was allowed to find a quiet place to prayer and yes, I did make a cheeky request to the almighty for a last-minute winner, prayers answered.
Holiday tip: Get to a chemist and purchase some Aloe Vera ointment, as those midges got nowhere near me! Nor did anyone else with that pungent aroma!
Day five and it’s back to Moscow for a couple of days of sightseeing and a one-hour queue for the Lenin Mausoleum, which was well worth it.
Back to the hunt for some halal meat, my Russian phrase was by now flowing easily off the tongue but every enquiry still drew a somewhat confused look.
Day nine and it’s off for a 24-hour journey to Niznhy Novgorod, and an 11pm train was boarded with the news Germany were still drawing and could be eliminated in the group stages! It only took the train driver to start the engine when my Mexican comrade in the berth next to me informed me they had scored with a last gasp free-kick. What else was I expecting? I did ask my Mexican friend whether he had brought an extra ticket for his oversized sombrero, as it was that big!
We arrived on the overnight train bleary eyed, after managing 30 minutes of shut-eye before I was awoken by a very enthusiastic train porter informing me we’d arrived.
Game two and the one question on my mind, do they serve halal meat? No of course it wasn’t! How can England wrap this qualification up early doors and win the game comfortably? I was fairly confident and all prayers were into the almighty with a request for three points and I didn’t mind how we did it.
Wow, were my prayers answered and how, with it being 5-0 at half time! What? Really? This is England not Brazil! We were sharp and clinical and even through my rose-tinted glasses, there were not many errors.
Happy days! Today is the day to get out my shiny new England shirt!
We didn’t need a plane to get back, as we could have flown back to my base in Moscow on a wave of optimism but steady, this is England.
So here I am on day ten of my adventure and with two games and six points in the bag, it’s mission accomplished. But there was still the small matter of halal food and trust me, it’s good news. No, it’s great news!
Day ten was always going to be the day I visited the biggest mosque in Moscow, the Moscow Cathedral Mosque, rebuilt from scratch in 2015. It’s a truly a stunning building, it took my breath away and is a must see for anyone visiting this incredible city. So, out I come with the oft-used phrase and before I had even finished, there was a halal feast on the table!
It’s been 11 days of midges, fan IDs, Google maps, VAR and incredible architecture, but ultimately an eye-opener to a country that has shaken off the pre-tournament publicity and opened its Iron Curtain to a world that I am sure will visit again!
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