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

July 26, 2021

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.

Burevestnik v Lightning, Sunday 28th March 2021, 11 am

April 2, 2021

As a ground hopper it’s great when you stumble across a match that you weren’t expecting. I was on my way to the second tier game between Spartak Moscow’s reserve team and Tekstilshchik Ivanovo when I heard the unmistakable sound of a referee’s whistle coming from the first pitch at the Spartak Academy complex. I’d just walked from Sokolniki Park where the snow was still on the ground but enough of the paths were clear for me to enjoy a stroll around in the fresh air.

Sokolniki is supposed to have wild boars in it but I’ve never seen any. Apparently, it was used by one of the Tzars as a place to catch rabbits with his falcons. I’ve not seen any rabbits or falcons either. Nor any Tzars for that matter. There are always some of those grey and black crows about though, generally in pairs. I spotted one that seemed to be collecting food rather than eating it.

Pitch 1 of the Spartak Academy is a small ground with seats along one side that have an obscured view through a fence. There are no seats behind either of the goals and the opposite side of the pitch houses the dugouts.

As I approached the entrance a fella in a grey kit was leaving.  A quick count up revealed that his team only had ten men so I suspect that he was heading for his car in a huff after being shown a red.

A banner identified the team in blue as Burevestnik and a bit of online research revealed the visitors as Lightning. They were competing in the Under-17 Winter Championship of Moscow and had drawn a crowd of around twenty spectators, some clearly supporting the teams playing and not just killing time before the Spartak game.

I hung around for fifteen minutes or so which was long enough to see a goal for each side, including one cracker from outside of the box that clipped the bar on the way in.

Lokomotiv Moscow v Tambov, Sunday 20th September 2020, 7pm

October 5, 2020

I’ve made good progress in working my way through the Moscow clubs since I got back to Russia a few weeks ago with Lokomotiv being the last of what I’d consider to be the ‘big four’ that also includes CSKA, Spartak and Dinamo. I would have added Torpedo to that but despite the familiarity to me of their name they currently turn out at Chertanovo’s ground in the second division, so not very ‘big’ at all.

CSKA’s heritage is the military, Spartak was the union team and Dinamo the KGB. Lokomotiv, you may not be surprised to learn, were and are the railway team. It therefore seemed somewhat appropriate that I took the Metro towards the RZD Arena. I had a few hours in hand though and so I got off a couple of stops early to have a wander around Sokolniki Park. It is definitely one of the better parks that I’ve been to in a city where there is a lot of competition.

There’s a section for eating and drinking near to the fountain at the main entrance and various activities spread around the park. You can ride a horse or a roller coaster.

My preference in these parks is just walking on the quieter trails and my route took me past a lake and on to something called a ‘Health Trail’. It was a pathway about three kilometres long with exercise equipment every hundred yards or so. There were also quieter offshoots that made it easy to thin the traffic even further and extend the distance. I’d read in a guidebook that there are wild boars in the adjoining reserve north of the park but if there were any wandering around they kept well away whilst I was there. The best I saw in terms of wildlife was a red squirrel.

As kick-off time drew nearer I got back on the Metro for two stop trip to the Lokomotive Station and then had a five minute walk around the corner to the turnstiles. I’d bought my ticket online in advance paying 1.200 rubles for a seat in the back row of the lower tier in the stand facing the tunnel. I could have sat behind the goal for only 500 rubles and season tickets were an even bigger bargain starting at 5,500 rubles or fifty five quid. At the moment I’m happy to ground hop, but when I’ve exhausted Moscow’s possibilities then a team with a stadium near to a decent park might hold some appeal.

In honour of the railway connection Lokomotiv has a great big train parked up in the area between the turnstiles and the stadium. It was popular with people wanting photos and struck me as a better alternative to scrapping it. I think I’d like to see old trains dumped all over the place.

My seat was very good with no obstruction from the overhang and sufficient space between me and everyone else. On the opposite side of the pitch I noticed that each team had a dugout to accommodate forty-five people. That apparently wasn’t sufficient though and both dugouts also had a few extra chairs tagged on at the end.

The teams came out to the sound of a train whistle, with Tambov in blue and Lokomotiv in green and red, a combination that I never really consider to be proper football colours. I always think of green as non-league, although I’m sure fans of Sporting Lisbon or Celtic might disagree. Green and red, just doesn’t go though.

The Tambov goalie was forty years old and a former Lokomotiv player. Despite all that he got very little reaction from the home crowd. Maybe the indifference was due to them forgetting about him in the thirteen years since he had left, or maybe a lot of them were just not old enough to remember him.

The old bloke conceded early on, although there was little he could have done about it and there was just the one goal in it at half-time. I quite fancied a drink but even with only six and a half thousand people spread around a near thirty thousand capacity ground the queues were both long and tightly packed. I played safe and did without.

The veteran keeper was booked in second half for taking too long over a goal kick despite his team being behind. Maybe they are strict about running on time here. He then pulled off a very good one handed save with twenty minutes to go. There was no urgency from Tambov as the game drew to an end. I’d been expecting to see their goalie in the Lokomotiv box and hoped that he’d make the sort of impact that only a late goal from a player that should be a hundred yards away at the other end of the pitch can have. I was disappointed though as Tambov didn’t even risk throwing any outfield players forward and instead seemed content to settle for the one goal defeat.

The final whistle was greeted by more train whistling and then a firework display. It all seemed a bit over the top really. Perhaps they don’t win very often.

Royal Leopards v Petro de Luanda, Saturday 14th March 2015, 3.30pm

March 31, 2015


Swaziland is less than four hours drive from where we live but after a year and a half in South Africa, we still hadn’t got around to going there. I think I’d subconsciously been hanging on to try to combine any visit with the Reed Dance. You know the one I mean, it’s that ceremony where as a way of helping the King select another bride the local women dance around their handbags without their blouses on.

I’ve no time for the monarchy, but if we had events like that outside of Buckingham Palace I imagine I could probably put my Republican sympathies to one side for the afternoon.

In the absence of any royal events involving girls in states of undress it was the prospect of seeing the Swazi Police team Royal Leopards in the equivalent of a UEFA Cup game against a side from Angola that proved sufficient to tempt us over the border.

We stayed at the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary in what was described as a beehive hut. I can’t imagine anything worse than staying in a giant beehive, perhaps except a giant wasp or hornet‘s nest, but as there weren’t any bees inside it worked out fine.

Beehive hut

Beehive hut

The Somhlolo National stadium in Lobamba was only ten minutes drive away from our hut and there was plenty of parking on the field outside. Soon after paying our thirty Swazi wotsits on the gate we heard our car alarm going off, but fortunately we were close enough to be able to use the remote to silence it. I spent the rest of the game wondering what might have been nicked.

We watched  the first half in the South Stand behind one of the goals. The main West Stand housed most of the spectators, with a handful in the North and one or two loitering on the grassy terrace to our right.

View from the South Stand

View from the South Stand

We attracted a little more attention than we usually do, starting with a fella in a Kaizer Chiefs shirt who was insistent that I tried some of his home-brewed morula. It was a cloudy beige liquid and he had two litres of it in an old coke bottle. I detected a hint of apple in my quick swig with perhaps the slight bouquet of anti-freeze. Whatever it had been made from, it certainly had a kick to it.

We were then joined by a small girl who quietly exchanged pleasantries with Jen before asking her for money.

The game kicked off five minutes early at twenty-five past three. They wouldn’t get away with that at the Riverside where people have the timing of downing their final pre-match pint down to a fine art. Mind you, missing the first five minutes at the Riverside due to an earlier than scheduled kick-off wouldn’t be as bad as the game kicking off later than planned and you arriving in your seat to discover that you have five minutes of Me Mark Page’s gobshitery to contend with.

Hat of the day.

Hat of the day.

Royal Leopards had done well to be in the current round of the CAF Confederations Cup. They’d lost the away leg of the previous tie at Bidvest Wits three-nil, but had then rallied at home to turn it around and get through. Oh Massimo.

The hosts  looked to have their work cut out in this round too as with game no more than five minutes old the Angolans, in yellow and blue, converted a cross from the left at the near post.

Leopards equalised midway through the first half with a penalty after a contentious handball. The linesman flagged for it just a few minutes after ruling that a shot that had bounced down from the Petro crossbar hadn’t crossed the line. I felt that each decision could have gone either way and suspected that the linesman felt under pressure not to rule against the home side twice in quick succession.

One each.

One each.

At half time I bought a couple of pieces of grilled chicken. I could have had beef or pork, but I couldn’t peel off the skin from those as I could with the chicken and as the lad on the stall seemed to have minimal interest in chasing away the flies that kept landing on the food, chicken seemed marginally safer.

Half-time snacks.

Half-time snacks.

For the second half we moved to the South Stand, mainly to avoid the prospect of any more morula. We were successful, although we did end up handing over twenty rand each to a six year old girl selling what we subsequently discovered was probably tap water in re-filled plastic bottles.

Tap water and nuts.

Tap water and nuts.

Ten minutes after the re-start a goalmouth scramble ended up with Leopards taking the lead and a mass celebration that included all of the bench and a couple of the ball boys. They couldn’t hold on though and Petro squared the game with a quarter of an hour to go to set themselves up nicely for the second leg.

The Platinum Cup, Sunday 3rd August 2014

August 14, 2014


This should have been an entirely different story altogether as the intention for the weekend had been for Jen and I to go to Mozambique and take in their national team’s African Cup of Nations Qualifier against Tanzania. It was all going to plan until we reached the airport check-in desk and were informed that American nationals now need a visa issued in advance rather than obtaining one on arrival.

I’ve seen enough airport programmes on the telly to know that arguing never works and my attempts at charming the check-in staff weren’t anywhere near good enough to circumvent the new rules. Fortunately we were able to re-book the flights for a month later and so the only real loss was the cost of the Maputo hotel.

So, what to do? Well, we’d recently acquired a Land Rover from a bloke at work and so I thought we might as well head over to Pilanesburg National Park and take advantage of its 4×4 capabilities to see what we could spot in the way of wildlife.

Despite hotels in Pilanesburg being even more expensive than the one we were missing out on in Maputo, they tend to fill up early. That meant that we ended up staying about an hours drive away on a small game farm. It worked out fine though, as I got the opportunity to go into a cage with a couple of caracals. You might know them better as lynx, those cats with the big ears. Big teeth and big claws too.

The owner let me feed one of the caracals with a chicken and encouraged me to tease him a bit. That’s pretty much my default position with cats anyway and so I made him work a bit before I released my grip on his dinner.

I stopped teasing him at this point.

I stopped teasing him at this point.

The next day we spent a few hours driving around Pilanesburg. We didn’t encounter any bigger cats, but we did see some rhinos and a few elephants. There are rules about not feeding them chickens though.

Zebras in the background too.

Zebras in the background too.

On the way back home we passed through Rustenburg and as we reached the Olympia Stadium I noticed a couple of games taking place next to each other on the pitches nearby. As you might have expected I pulled off the road and went and had a look.

Blues v Yellows.

Blues v Yellows.

The pitches weren’t in the best of condition, with the goalmouths in particular being more solid earth than grass, but there were a couple of hundred people watching. That size of crowd seems de rigueur for lower league football, no matter where in the world it takes place but in this case it was a more than decent turnout for games that were taking place on pitches that most English Sunday League teams would refuse to play on.

Red v Green.

Red v Green.

There are certain circumstances in South Africa where an Englishman wandering around taking photos attracts a fair bit of attention. This was one of those times. I tend to try to keep a low profile when I’m out and about but everyone wanted to know what I was up to.

It turns out that I’d wandered into a tournament that had been running for a few weeks and was now at the last sixteen stage. Whilst it seems plausible to me that someone could just like watching football, the people who I spoke to all seemed convinced that I was there to assess the suitability of their competition for sponsorship.

Fans down the side.

Fans down the side.

I was quickly introduced to someone’s boss and then to the bosses boss. They were all keen to assure me that they could produce presentations and plans detailing all the equipment and funding that they would need.

Rustenburg is a poor area. It’s predominantly a mining community that has recently been through a five month strike and I was told that whilst some of the players were miners, most were unemployed.

Whilst I’d have loved to have helped, I’m just a bloke who watches a bit of football now and again, not some corporation with a charity budget to dispense. I made my excuses and we headed off further down the road.



Choongnam v Doosan, Sunday 23rd September 2012, 2pm

October 9, 2012

I’d been to watch the tennis at the Olympic Park and as I was heading back to the subway station afterwards I noticed a few television trucks outside of the Fencing Gymnasium. There was a sign outside mentioning handball and as one of the doors to the venue was open I went inside to see if there was anything going on. I could hear noises from behind a curtain and a closer look revealed that there was indeed a handball game taking place.

Behind the curtain.

To be truthful handball isn’t a game that I’ve ever given very much thought to. I occasionally stumble across a match as I’m flicking through the tv channels, but I rarely watch for longer than the time necessary to establish that it’s, well, handball.

I’m usually quite happy to watch most sport, but handball just seems like an unnecessary version of football, albeit not so good. Sports like rugby or basketball are different enough from football to make them interesting, handball though is really just a rip-off of a game of five-a-side with your mates. The only difference seems to be that you use your hands rather than your feet.

I’ve read that it’s popular in Scandinavia, but then again, so are fermented shark burgers. It still doesn’t make it right. Curiosity trumped reticence though and I joined around five hundred other spectators. A team in red that I later discovered to be Choongnam were playing a team in blue that turned out to be a side owned by Doosan. The game was ten minutes into the second half and Choongnam were ahead by a few.

Choongnam on the attack.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with any of the rules other than you aren’t allowed to kick the ball, I’ll pass on what I spotted. If you imagine five-a-side football, but with seven players on each team that’s it. So, seven-a-side football. I couldn’t work out whether outfield players were allowed in the box or not and I’m not sure the ref knew either. Maybe the players just decide between themselves before the start, but don’t really pay much attention to it. Whatever. They’ve borrowed two minutes suspensions from ice-hockey but that’s about the only difference that I noticed.

It’s quite an aggressive game, or at least this one was, with players regularly getting clattered. I kept an eye on the keepers as apparently it was during Peter Schmeichel’s time as a handball goalie that he developed his famous ‘star-jump’ shot stopping technique. Both keepers spread themselves in a similar way whenever the ball was hurled towards goal but, unlike Schmeichel, rarely seemed to know where the ball was going until it either hit the back of the net or smacked them in the chops.

Interestingly, Schmeichel’s other trademark activity of bollocking the defence whenever he made a mistake didn’t seem to be something that he’d picked up from his handball days.

A Doosan player tries the ball concealment tactic known as ‘Drug-smuggling’.

Choongnam kept their lead until the end, running out 28-22 victors. Oddly though it was Doosan who celebrated, receiving a trophy, throwing their coach in the air and lining up behind a banner where one fella mixed up his V for Victory gesture with something else altogether.

Harvey Smith celebrates another win.

The mystery was solved when I discovered that this match was the second leg of the Championship play-off and so I assume that Doosan must have gone into the game with at least a seven goal advantage from the previous encounter.  I’ve no idea whether it was close or not. Doosan could have just nicked a thrilling aggregate victory or they could have strolled through a match made meaningless by the first leg. The air-conditioning was good though and that’s what mattered most.