As I type this, I have a very different view from my Sochi hotel window than I did when our crew were first here for Portugal v Spain a week or so ago. It's a good deal grimmer outside as opposed to the scorching sunshine that greeted us on our previous trip to the Black Sea. There appears to be the threat of rain and/or thunderstorms all day, but a weather forecast for Sochi has to cover a huge surface area, so it remains to be seen if threatening clouds pervade over the Fisht Stadium a mile or so away from my vantage point - not that I can actually see it from my room this time. I'm on the other side of the media hotel and our fixer Will appears to have lucked out with the view this time - and he's not letting us forget it.
Since I last blogged, our commentary team have been to Nizhny Novgorod, a city that for many years was known as Gorky and was effectively 'closed' to outsiders during the Soviet era. After Perestroika and the change in the political climate, the city was renamed Nizhny, and we were told that, as a people, English was not widely spoken and it would be along the lines of the more colonial Russia was had experienced first hand in Rostov-on-Don. When we finally reached our hotel after a gruelling 6-hour road trip - during which time Matt Holland's knee's seized up several times, much to his utter delight - we walked into the Grand Hotel to find a reception area literally teeming with Argentinian supporters and media personnel. Everywhere was a hive of activity in front of us - animated conversations by compatriots standing toe to toe in full voice debating...well, something; camera crews hastily putting up tripods and bar stools to create an impromptu 'studio' for a TV discussion programme to be broadcast from reception, and then as we reached the check in desk, several more Argentinian gentlemen having a, erm, 'frank and open exchange of views' with the staff about the legitimacy and/or length of their stay. Lots of gesticulation, unneccessarily raised voices and an atmosphere that was a little intimidating as the 4 of us patiently waited our turn, making sure we had all the correct documents so that we wouldn't have to get involved in any sort of kerfuffle with the locals.
It was a relief therefore to get to the sanctuary of our rooms and get some peace and quiet for a bit. We reconvened later in a rather natty Sports Bar in the hotel basement for dinner. Pool and snooker tables were plentiful at one end, and tucked away at the other was a mini bowling alley with 6 lanes available to hire if you so wished. There was also a (ahem) gentleman's club advertised in the hotel brochure as well as a sauna. These were NOT investigated, but the food was. I loved it when I tried to order a 'sausage bonbon' listed on the menu only for the waiter to practically hold his nose and say 'Is no good'. I went for the burger instead. I chuckled at Spain's frustration in trying to get past an obdurate Iran side (we've been there many a time with England) and it took a scrappy effort by Costa to get them in front, much to the delight of the Argentina fans (Spanish speakers of course) who were in typically loud voice at tables around us. Iran did come close to an equaliser a few times, but fair play to Iniesta and co for thwarting them. It makes the Iran/Portugal clash to come really interesting - Quieroz against his home nation with a top 2 spot up for grabs. Great stuff.
I have to say how wonderful these newly-constructed stadia look as we've travelled around the country. Our commentary team will get to see the 2 Moscow stadiums next week, and I hear the Luznikhi has undergone a particularly impressive transformation from that which hosted the CFC/MUFC Champions League final, but after Sochi and Rostov's great grounds, I wondered how Nizhny would stack up. From the photos I'd seen, it had been constructed to try and 'blend in' more with its immediate surroundings on the banks of the Volga and Oka rivers - there's a beautiful Kremlin just opposite and other period buildings that a new space age stadium would look awful alongside. But what a job the designers did - from the outside you see the huge vertical struts that run around the entire stadium holding the circular canopy roof in place as well as taking the weight of the rest of the construction. It does look sympathetically designed to be an almost (if not quite) natural part of the traditional landscape that surrounds it.
And then you get inside.
It's astonishingly beautiful - the seats are bedecked in shades of white, light blue and dark blue to represent water and other elements like wind and the stands' convex undulations reminded me instantly of the Stade Velodrome in Marseille, one of my all time favourite stadiums. Even better was the proximity of all 4 stands to the lush playing surface. It's a tight feel where supporters can feel right on top of the action - supporters of FC Nizhny Novgorod are going to be spoilt rotten having this as their new home. But would Argentina and Croatia grace it?
Well, Croatia did. And how - Modric and Rakitic bossing the midfield, Rebic and Perisic causing all sorts of havoc down the flanks and Manzukic as tireless and unselfish as ever as the fulcrum of the attack. Hell, even Lovren looks untroubled at the back! But Argentina were woeful, listless, devoid of character never mind ideas. The sight of Messi mopping his brow with a mournful countenance as the anthems plays was a portent of things to come. Our producer Declan had arrived with great anticipation of seeing the great No.10 live and in the flesh, but in truth Modric, the other No.10 was light years ahead of him in energy, influence and skill. His goal and Croatia's 2nd was a thunderous hit after twisting and turning to get the marginal space required 25 yards out to unleash a drive that Caballero, fresh from his awful shanked clearance that Rebic gleefully volleyed home for the opener, couldn't get near despite being at full stretch.
And Messi? As introverted and downbeat as I've ever seen him. Usually his legs are a positive blur as he navigates his way through a forest of legs and bodies on his way to another inevitable goal - but here it was shown by subsequent stats that Denmark's goalie Kasper Schmeichel covered more ground than Messi did. Just think about that for a moment. Sampoli the coach was no help, resorting to wild animalistic responses to poor passes and failed shots as he prowled his technical area, throwing his jacket to the ground during the 2nd half, presumably in the hope that, in amongst the tattoos on his arms was a tactical masterstroke written down for him to pass on. If there was one it was pretty badly smudged - I cannot think of any Argentina player who had anything approaching even an average game. Fair play Croatia though - did a job on them good and proper. They'll be worth a watch to see how deep they can get.
Back at the hotel it was just as busy in reception but about 60 decibels quieter than the previous afternoon when we arrived. The impromptu TV studios were still in evidence, but there didn't look to be much urgency to get on air to dissect the 90 minutes of action down the road. I'm told that national Argentine TV held a minute's silence at the end of the match, with cameras panning across the host and pundits all looking stony faced and mute to reflect the sheer disbelief about what Sampaoli and his players had just presided over. Can you imagine Ian Wright staying quiet like that if England lost? I know Wrighty well and I doubt that, even after the worst performance, he'd be able to keep a straight face, never mind keep quiet. We all just had a quiet beer in the Sports Bar downstairs and I left Matt, Adrian and Will to it after one glass feeling shattered after another commentary that takes a lot more out of you than you'd think.
Friday was travel day again, necessitating a flight to Sochi via Moscow, so more flapping as to whether our broadcast kit would make it through the transfer of luggage, but it was almost the first thing on the carousel when we arrived in baggage reclaim. Which was nice. It looked as though the Tulip Hotel where we're all staying again was going to be much quieter than for the Spain Portugal game as we sat in reception having a bite to eat, when suddenly 2 full coach loads of Aussie fans arrived to check in, sending reception staff into panic mode. Australia don't play here until next Tuesday against Peru whilst Matt and I are at the Luznikhi to see the other game in their group (France v Denmark) but the mass ranks of the Socceroos clearly wanted to make it a really, really, REALLY long weekend in Sochi. Remains to be seen if they can overhaul the Danes and qualify - back in my room as watched on as Switzerland came from behind to beat Serbia and blow that group (with Brazil) wide open! Matt and I are at Spartak's stadium for Brazil v Serbia next week and there's a scenario where Brazil, who left it desperately late against Costa Rica, could fail to qualify. That would need Swiss and Serbian wins - not quite as far beyond the realms of possibility as it might have been before all these major nations got off to such stuttering starts...whether Germany follows that trend tonight against the Swedes is open to question, but in the last 4 World Cup finals, 3 sides who went into the tournament as holders exited at the Group Stage. So...will anyone see Mesut Ozil later? ;)
P.S. Thanks to Football 365 and Johnny Nicholson for his kind words about my work in his website's appraisal of the UK media's work in the first week of the tournament. Very kind and humbling to read.