Zenit St. Petersburg v Lokomotiv Moscow, Saturday 17th July 2021, 7pm

I didn’t even know that Kaliningrad existed until it hosted some games during the Russia World Cup and on the admittedly often disproved theory of mine that if I don’t know something then it’s unlikely that anyone else will, I should probably give some details.

Kaliningrad is an enclave of Russia on the Baltic coast between Poland and Latvia. Russia got it as a prize at the end of World War 2 and so it meant that Jen and I could fly there for a weekend on a domestic flight without any of the immigration restrictions or requirements arising from Covid.

Our flight from Moscow took just over an hour and a half and so by lunchtime on the Friday we were there. It’s an interesting place. Whilst a lot of the city was destroyed in the war that led to it changing hands some parts of the old city walls remain. We had a look around some of the parts of it, as much to keep out of the sunshine as anything.

There are plenty of areas for eating and drinking with one of the better places being alongside the rivers near to some famous cathedral. There’s a definite German feel to a lot of the buildings which on one hand isn’t surprising given the history of the place but apparently most of the town was flattened during the bombings and so it seems slightly odd that rebuilding by the Russians would be influenced by what had been there before.

And why Kaliningrad? Well, that’s easy. It was hosting the Russian version of the Charity Shield, the Super Cup curtain-raiser for the new season between Champions Zenit St Petersburg and Cup winners Lokomotiv Moscow.

It had been an arse-on getting a ticket. I’d initially got one through Zenit by downloading their App and registering as a fan. Unfortunately, they required me to collect the ticket from St Petersburg so I needed a Plan B.

After registering with Lokomotiv I bought a ticket for their section. A bargain for a fiver but behind the goal, in a singing section and with the possibility of having to watch the game through netting. When tickets for the neutral centre sections went on sale I bought one in the lower-tier near the half-way line. It was more expensive at twenty- seven quid but likely to be a much better view.

The stadium was only around a half-hour walk from the apartment we had rented following a lot of the route along the river that we’d walked earlier in the day. Long before I saw them I heard the Zenit fans chanting and letting off fireworks. As I reached the river I could see their support marching to the ground, waving flags and flares.

I stuck to the opposite bank for as long as I could, but eventually had to join the convoy. By now the flares were exhausted but the Zenit supporters continued the singing and flag waving until they reached the turnstiles.

I had another five minutes walk to reach my entrance, where despite having my temperature taken and my body scanned I wasn’t asked for a ticket. That didn’t happen until I was inside the stadium and ready to enter the concourse area. If anyone fancied the sort of shenanigans that we saw at Wembley for the Euro final it would have been a lot easier for them at Kaliningrad.

The stadium had been built for the 2018 World Cup and it’s where England lost their group game to Belgium. Baltika Kaliningrad of the second tier National League use it these days and I doubt that they ever come close to needing the thirty-five thousand capacity.

By the time I’d got a coke and was ready to take my seat there were around five minutes to kick-off. By coincidence that was also the time when a gaggle of cheerleaders were heading into the stand. I found myself caught up in the line of them before I took my seat on the edge of the aisle. In revenge, the one stationed just in front of me nearly had my eye out with one particularly reckless waft of a pom-pom.

In addition to the risk to my sight, the Plan C seat that I’d bought was situated in the only part of the sunshine still bathed in light. It wasn’t until the start of the second half that the sun had dipped sufficiently behind the opposite stand for me to benefit from some shade. At one point I thought about nipping around to behind the goal and using my Lokomotiv ticket instead.

The game itself was pretty good. I’ve no idea of the extent to which the teams used fringe players but there were some decent moves from both sides. Zenit took the lead in the first half and Lokomotiv should really have equalized early in the second. The chance was spurned and Zenit went straight down the other end and doubled their lead. A real sliding-doors moment.

The second goal opened things up as Lokomotiv tried to get back into the game but despite some chances to pull one back it was Zenit that notched the third and final goal. They were deserved winners.

I didn’t stay for the trophy presentation but as I skirted the stadium perimeter on the way back to the eating and drinking area by the river I could hear their fans singing along to ‘We are the Champions’. Fair comment.

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