I'm back in Moscow for a day of prep and, more importantly, washing, after our team's 4 day trip to Sochi & Rostov - we rounded off that particular excursion with the Brazil/Switzerland game at the Rostov Arena. It's a mightily impressive looking construction right on the banks of the River Don that cuts a huge swathe through the centre of the city. The old port city itself is nowhere near as modern as the stadium, and it does look a little at odds with its surroundings as a consequence, but it's something for fans of FC Rostov to be undoubtedly proud of.
One thing you will be aware of if you've ever been lucky enough to attend a match at a World Cup is the exclusion zone that prevents all traffic aside from accredited vehicles such as the team coaches to drive into. These zones vary in diameter from stadium to stadium - in Rostov this zone seemed bigger than usual, as our taxi had to stop at the start of the bridge that leads over the Don towards the ground. That meant about a 2-mile walk for us, which was of no concern to me, but producer Declan, lugging our tonne of broadcast kit behind him, didn't have it quite so easy as the rest of us.He might even fill out a bit with all this impromptu weight training! Dec is a very tall, slim fellow with legs that remind me of my first pair of drumsticks, but he never complains about carting our gear around - he probably has more right to complain about the constant jokes that come flying his way from Matt Holland, Will Dowie and myself. He doesn't help himself sometimes, as there was a glorious moment in Sochi where, running late for our taxi to the airport, he elected to use the revolving doors to exit our hotel and promptly got stuck in them Stan Laurel-style with no apparent means of escape. The struggle could have gone on for hours, as we were laughing too hard to help, but one of the burly security guards who stand in the lobby of every hotel in Russia stepped in to extricate Dec from his temporary prison. I could have sworn a faint smile crossed the lips of the guard, but it may just have been wind...apparently in parts of Russia, smiling is construed as being 'up to something' or 'looking untrustworthy' so I've spent most of my time pouting like I used to do during Shotgun Wedding photo sessions in my glam/sleaze rock band days.
Brazil were pegged back by a typically obdurate Swiss side who, if they had a striker who could hold the ball up or pass the thing, could cause far more problems for opposition defences. I found it odd that Thiago Silva was preferred in Brazil's back 4 to Marquinhos who'd played far more of the qualifiers under Tite than the 2014 captain. With Danilo playing right back for the absent Dani Alves, it meant a 50% different defence to that which became rock solid as Brazil became the 1st country to qualify here. Not that that point seemed to matter one bit when Coutinho sweetly struck the Selecao in front after 20-odd minutes. It was a magnificent hit, and you sensed that the Samba Boys could go through the gears and have things wrapped up by the break. But credit Petkovic's side who stuck at it and got that equaliser from Zuber (who's in great goals/assists form just now) and not then necessarily retreating into their 3rd of the field to protect a point. The onslaught did come from Brazil late on, but it ended frustratingly for Neymar and co. The Swiss clearly had designs on nobbling Neymar, whether through a subtle nibble or something a tad more agricultural. Regardless of that Neymar didn't look right at it - he'd scored beauties in the warm up matches, but in the ultra competitive atmosphere of a World Cup, I felt the fitness concerns showed up a little in the same way that we've seen English star names returning from metatarsal injuries look a bit off the pace. He'll have benefitted from a full 90 minutes, but it was odd that he didn't go for goal with the last-gasp 30-yard free kick he was presented with.
The walk back from the ground to the edge of the exclusion zone showed that Matt Holland has lost none of his pace and vision, darting through the throng heading back to the city and leading the way for Will & I to follow on behind (Declan had stayed behind to interview the great and the good in the mixed zone). Once safely back amongst traffic, Will used his local taxi app to find us a nearby cab, and presently he annouced "It'll be here in 2 minutes...it's going to be a Lada..." Now I've not seen a Lada in a good while, and the car that showed up 90 seconds later looked like it had just come from a demolition derby at Hednesford Raceway. Cut and, indeed, shut.Very pleasant chap driving it, though and, keen to get back to the hotel bar, we leapt in for another breakneck journey where we witnessed a car on the other carriageway wrap itself around a lampost and a fallen tree suddenly appear in our path - our driver was clearly channelling Hednesford Raceway as he swerved to avoid that in good time. I was ready to try a vodka once safely back at our watering hole. Vodka and I don't really get on, as members of rock band The Treatment will solidly testify, but Matt and I shared a vial of vodka to go with our soft drinks and I'm delighted to report (especially to The Treatment) that I kept it down this time lads!! Incidentally, I do wonder how plush, newly built hotels such as the one we stayed in outside Rostov will fare once the World Cup is over? You wouldn't want it to be like The Shining in winter, especially as the staff are so plesasant and patient with us useless English types who speak barely a word of Russian. I may end up learning marginally more Russian than I did Portuguese 4 years ago in Brazil. The hotel wasn't quite finished actually, reminding me a little of Carry On Abroad, so when Will asked what was on the menu the first night and I replied "Sausage and beans, sausage and chippins and beans and chippins...that is choices!!!" in my finest Peter Butterworth, it was meant with blank stares all round our table. I'm so old... ;)
Another desperately early start the next morning saw us back in Moscow in time for the first of Monday's matches. We're back at the hotel where most of the talkSPORT crew are usually at, but of course the likes of Saggs, Jim and Stuart were in Volgograd preparing for England in the evening, so there weren't too many teammates about. Anyway, laundry took precedence to socialising at first. There are lots of UK broadcasters staying here with us from TV and radio. When I see Steve Wilson, Martin Tyler or Simon Brotherton knocking about, it's somehow natural for me to think to myself 'Do I truly belong in their company?' I'm not given to huge egotistical tendencies generally, and whilst I know I'm good at my job, it's always a reminder to me when I see some of these big names in broadcasting covering the same tournament and doing the same job as me that I'm incredibly fortunate to be considered by them to be part of their peer group. I then have to remind myself that I've been in broadcasting for 20 years now (see earlier blog on this website) and commentating on football for 19 of those 20 years, so I really should stop flapping so much and have a bit more self-belief ;) We're a sensitive bunch, us commentators!
We were flapping for a good while in the John Don pub in Moscow watching England try and find a way past Tunisia in the 2nd half - Adrian Durham and Ray Parlour were holding court in one corner with a number of our talkSPORT crew joining them in an English bar bedecked in Liverpool memorabilia, pictures and half and half scarves from Anfield matches. There was a time when England had a lot of Liverpool representation (Neal, Thompson, Clemence, McDermott for example) and nowadays it's Jordan Henderson (who started) and Trent Alexander Arnold (who didn't). Jordan did ok as the sole holding midfielder and on another day, Lingard could have scored 3. He was at least finding space and getting in the right positions to get those opportunities which was encouraging, even if his finishing wasn't up to his usual standards. And good old Harry, eh? Never in doubt lads...we're gonna win the...no wait, steady on...that could be the vodka talking...