World Cup 2018

From Russia with Temporary, Platonic, Friendly Affection

Introductory note: This is an instalment of my recollections of the World Cup, which undeniably are wildly misplaced on a blog meant to bitterly berate the works of accomplished writers, but my own lack of commitment has meant that I’m doing this instead. If you want some context for the upcoming  paragraphs, I can recommend reading some of the previous instalments:
The Arrival: Part 1 (In which I whinge about the hostel landlady.)
The Arrival: Part 2 (In which I whinge some more about the hostel landlady.)
Love of Matchday, Hatred of Penalties (In which I whinge about penalties, an institution in the game of football.)
Game 1: Colombian Tigers Invade Kazan (In this one I actually don’t whinge at all. It’s pretty dull.)

In one of my previous posts, I talked about the concept of Matchday, and how uniquely gratifying it is to have the 2×45 as a focal point for your existence, even if it’s only for a day. When you’re at an international tournament, this is extended and exacerbated. After watching Poland-Colombia, our first live World Cup game, we had two days to fill until South Korea-Germany. Sure enough, we were on holiday in a country where alcohol was cheap, the weather was inexplicably sunny, and the World Cup was rolling across pub screens constantly, be it in the form of highlights, repeats or the games themselves. But the act of actually attending games was such a monumental climax, overshadowing everything we did elsewhere. It really was very reminiscent of being at the pub on a Sunday afternoon watching Bournemouth-Palace while you’re waiting for El Clasico to kick off. And to be clear: to me, and presumably to every football fan out there, this means that you’ll still have a good time while you’re waiting, but simultaneously knowing that this is not what you’re there for. It’s a half-climax, and one that I tend to enjoy during Matchday because it’s part of the build-up and the routine. This was also the case for the two days between games in Kazan, but it was hard to shake the hollow feeling of something not living quite up to expectations. On the other hand, that is what the pub culture is there to fill, in the form of beer and short-term friendships.

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Me (Right) and my friend Anders indulging in some pub culture. I assure you that this picture was taken while I was mid-blink and that I wasn’t actually that drunk after two bottles of Heineken.

With the tournament now being in the final round of the group stages, games were being played simultaneously, meaning that even the most dedicated fan would have to miss out on at least a little bit of live football (You can’t really watch two games at the same time. I have done my fair share of dual screening over the years, and in my experience you’ll always miss out on quite a bit in both games. I’m a monogamist viewer these days). In previous tournaments, I’ve found the first day of this a little upsetting, believing firmly in my God-given right to watch every minute of the World Cup unfold, regardless of what some Central Europeans might have got up to in the early 80s. But this time, I was strangely OK with it. In part because I’d already missed out on a bit of football due to travelling (First by plane to Kazan, then by bus to the stadium), and knowing that there was more of that to come (Sadly we were unable to get a flight home that didn’t overlap with two Round of 16 games). But in part also because the game we were to miss out on was Egypt-Saudi Arabia, i.e. the two most disappointing teams in the tournament at the time (Note that this was two days before Germany’s disaster against South Korea, the live experience of which I will convey on the blog. Stay tuned). Not because of particularly high pre-World Cup expectations, certainly not in the case of the Saudis, but just because they had both been disgracefully terrible. As it would turn out, the outcome of this game would end up contributing to a substantial payday at the bookie’s around a week later (If you’re still not staying tuned, I really don’t know what’s wrong with you), but at the time I only had a vague awareness of the bet that would make this happen, and so this game might just be the one I have cared the least about in World Cup history, at least while it was being played. Not that Uruguay-Russia was all that brilliant either. We went to watch it at Fan Fest in order to get a sense of Russian fan culture, but the 3-0 defeat of the hosts would dampen this somewhat. Thankfully, we would get to experience the host nation celebrating later on in the tournament (You probably don’t have to stay tuned for this one. If you’re reading this, I would imagine you know exactly what I’m referring to).

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FIFA Fan Fest at the Kazan Family Centre.

Back in the city centre, we decided to not go to Trinity, the Irish pub where we seemed to always end up, and instead broaden our horizons by going to Dublin, Kazan’s other Irish pub. How wonderfully exotic it was to be abroad! As we were waiting for Iran-Portugal to kick off (If I were in charge of the screens at Dublin I would have gone for Spain-Morocco, but who am I to criticise the decisions of people who are blatantly wrong?), the group of Korean guys at the table next to us proposed a bet. They were Asian, and consequently felt an obligation to back Iran, we were European, and should back Portugal. So if Iran were to get anything out of the game, we were to buy them a round, vice versa if Portugal did the job against the clearly inferior Persian side. Retrospectively, I reckon that they were mainly looking to make friends and didn’t care much about the bet, but Iran did end up equalising after a cheap stoppage time penalty. Can’t say I minded much buying the round of Guinness, as despite the Koreans’ notions of continental loyalty, I can’t stand the vast majority of Portuguese footballers, and actually took great delight in seeing Quaresma being robbed of becoming match winner, as well as Ronaldo’s penalty miss being decisive for the result. Additionally, Iran’s goal was crucial to my aforementioned profitable bet, though I didn’t know this at the time. But in the end, the most important part was being able to get to know the Korean guys, who turned out to be a group of 18- and 19-year olds on a lads’ trip. They gave us the first proper taste of World Cup friendliness. Sure enough, we’d got along with our Colombian hostel roommates Juan and Cristian, but this felt like it was in part due to the convenience of being placed in adjacent beds and part due to the sheer joy in the celebrations following the win against Poland. With the Koreans, it was a particularly pure form of jovial companionship, built on an unspoken idea that the fact that we love three of the same things, specifically pubs, Guinness and football, means that there is no reason for us to act like strangers. Over the course of our stay in Russia, we would spend time with loads of people under those circumstances, from Brazil, Australia, Kazakhstan as well as Russia. The friendly atmosphere surrounding the tournament is unlike anything I’ve experienced. Although this could be influenced by the fact that until recently I had spent all my life in Northern Europe.

Ronaldo Miss
Ronaldo missing his penalty. Quite soothing, really.

The best example of this universal camaraderie occurred on the next day. Following a dire display between Denmark and France, amazingly the only 0-0 game of the entire tournament, we yet again ventured to the familiar watering hole of Trinity to catch the conclusion of Group D. Mind you, these games were of enormous consequence for us, as we knew we were going to watch the Round of 16 between the runner-up in Group D against France, naturally strongly hoping for Argentina (Spoiler alert: I am basically the luckiest little shit on the planet). We’d stayed in touch with our Korean friends from the night before and told them where we were, to which they responded that they would drop by. Apparently, this expression has an extremely literal meaning in Korean. The six of them marched into the pub wearing their gear, arranged chairs around the table we were sitting, stayed for about 40 seconds, then announced that they needed to leave for some Korean fan event elsewhere in the city. As they left, still smiling and cheering while we waved back in confusion, I suddenly heard a voice behind me with a distinct Northern English accent:
“Sorry… But what the fuck was that?”
That was the start of another friendship one-nighter. The voice belonged to a guy called Mike, who was there with his German girlfriend for the game the following day. He was an Everton fan, I support Liverpool; he hoped for an Argentina defeat on account of his Brazilian friends, we were hoping to see the Argentinians live the following Saturday and so needed them to win. Our hopes won out in the end, but he took the defeat graciously (No doubt he’s had a lot of practice, being a Toffee). I cannot tell you how ecstatic we were about getting to see France-Argentina in a World Cup knock-out game, the fixture we considered a hypothetical ideal match-up, but not a realistic prospect when we got on the plane. Naturally, we celebrated by getting smashed in Trinity and Dublin with Mike and his German girlfriend. My recollection of things is that we got on famously, which must have been why we swapped contact details at the end of it. The next day we exchanged some messages about the game, but we didn’t stay in touch. Nor did we with the Koreans. I guess that everyone involved eventually came to the realisation that having 2-3 things in common doesn’t make for much of a long-term friendship. It can, however, make for a couple of extremely enjoyable nights out.

World Cup 2018

Game 1: Colombian Tigers Invade Kazan

Introductory note: This is an instalment of my recollections of the World Cup, which undeniably are wildly misplaced on a blog meant to bitterly berate the works of accomplished writers, but my own lack of commitment has meant that I’m doing this instead. If you want some context for the upcoming  paragraphs, I can recommend reading the previous instalments:
The Arrival: Part 1 (In which I whinge about the hostel landlady)
The Arrival: Part 2 (In which I whinge some more about the hostel landlady)
Love of Matchday, Hatred of Penalties (In which I whinge about penalties, an institution in the game of football)

The way I remember it, we had been alone in the 6-bed hostel room when we came back home from the pub the night before. On the other hand, Lars couldn’t remember us leaving the pub at all, so it is possible that the several series of £1.50 shots of Beluga Vodka impaired our recollection somewhat. Regardless, when we woke up we did so with two Colombian guys. They were in their own beds, thankfully. You might think this is a given, but an incident between Anders and a Russian taxi driver later on in our Kazan stay proved that we should not take this for granted.

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They do things differently in Russia. Especially vodka shots.

The two guys were called Juan and Cristian, and were in their mid-twenties – our age, which probably is part of why we got on fairly well. It struck me how South Americans on TV always seem to struggle with English, while virtually every person from the continent I’ve actually met are fairly fluent in the language. And certainly, compared to the part Russian, part body language, part dodgy translator apps that we had dealt with the previous day, Juan and Cristian sounded positively Oxbridge. They told us that they were following Colombia throughout the group stages, having just arrived from Saransk where they had watched the defeat to Japan, and that they would move on to Samara for the final game against Senegal after the Poland game. Today’s game. The first ever World Cup game that I would get to see live. I was trying to manage my own expectations. Maybe something would go wrong with the tickets, maybe I would lose my fan ID, maybe we would somehow not get to the stadium at all. My brain was refusing to properly acknowledge that I was going to be at Kazan Arena while the world was watching, and witness first hand the two highest ranked teams in the most evenly matched group of the 2018 World Cup.

In addition to that, we would get to see a South American team. 6 months previously, when it was confirmed that we had won the draw and had tickets secured for all of the three games we had applied for, but we still didn’t know which teams we’d be watching, we had a chat about who were on our respective wish lists. Mine had three items:

  • England
  • Australia
  • Any Latin American team

There’s something about Latin Americans’ relationship with football that sometimes makes me think that we haven’t got it quite right in Europe yet, not even in England. No doubt that British supporters will sing their hearts out with the best of them, but sometimes it feels like their motivating force is first and foremost duty, not the passion of the Latinos. Granted, I have never been anywhere near Latin America, so chances are that my view of that part of the world is romanticised and unrealistic, and that my illusions will be utterly crushed when I eventually go there. All I can say is that I have gotten very well along with virtually every South American I have met, and there were quite a few back when I first moved to London without a place to stay and had to drift between hostels while looking for work. Also, I really like the food. I find it very patronising to reduce cultures to their cuisines, but I do like it and feel like that counts for something.

The Colombian fans did not disappoint. It was a complete takeover of the city of Kazan, dressing it in yellow to the tunes of Seven Nation Army re-imagined with the lyrics “Eeeeel Tigre Falcaaaaa-o!”

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Random Kazan cafe, 11am.

This was mainly a takeover of the streets, which was another big difference to how the English invasions went down, during which the focal points tended to be the pubs. You actually have to give it to the English on that point, pubs are far more pleasant than streets. Especially when there are other World Cup games on, starting with England-Panama. The number of Colombians out in the streets when this kicked off knocks down my impression of the Latin American football dedication a little. With Panama having been a part of Colombia up until the last century, you would have thought that the invading forces of Kazan would have some sort of investment in their neighbours’ performance. Whether they would cheer for them out of camaraderie or jeer them out of rivalry I didn’t know, but I didn’t expect this indifference. Lars, Anders and I showed up to Trinity (Which already on the second day felt like it would inevitably become our temporarily adopted local) about an hour before the game and found the entire upstairs floor abandoned.

I suspect that Trinity had a rule dictating that the same number of staff should always be on duty, regardless of the time of day, which meant that during the evening it would take ages to get served, but right now waiters would sprint towards our table if any of us as much as blinked. Closer to kick-off, a few more customers made their way up and kept us company, mainly Russians with sympathies for either side (We witnessed little of the Anglophobia that we were so severely warned of beforehand), and also a table of three Colombians who watched the game seemingly from an academic perspective, without feeling very strongly either way.

As we were leaving Trinity, I felt a powerful mixture of emotions. Encouragement at England’s solid performance; sentimentally touched at how intensely Panama fans celebrated the 6-1 consolation goal, knowing that this is the World Cup, this is how much it means just to be able to take part; and anticipation that could barely be contained when thinking about Kazan Arena and what I would get to take part in that evening. We took a taxi to FIFA Fan Fest, just because we felt like checking it out, and watched the first half of Japan-Senegal on the big screen there, before having to leave at half time to make sure we’d get into the stadium on time. Never have I been so OK with missing out on a half of World Cup football.

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Fan Fest. This is before the match, which they did actually show. It’s not just a competition to spot yourself on the big screen, although that’s kind of how it felt pre kick-off.

On the shuttle bus en route to the stadium, we finally saw some Polish supporters making noise. Up until this point, the white shirts had looked scattered and isolated, but a group of 7 or so were determined to at least have this bus, even if Colombia had the arena, the streets and the city. This was emphasised further as the bus dropped us off around 500 metres from the stadium, when the Polish group became subdued by the crowds of South Americans, out of discouragement from the hopelessness mind you, not from physical intimidation.

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Outside of the stadium. Overwhelmingly Colombian, just like the rest of Kazan.

The Fan ID worked, the tickets were good, and we got into the stadium without a problem. We got a unique type of goosebumps that can only be found in enormous crowds on special occasions as the hordes of fans took part in the Colombian national anthem. We felt the greatness of the World Cup as we saw the three giants in yellow – James, Cuadrado and Falcao play at their best and destroy the hapless Polish side, at the time ranked as number 8 in the world. We found ourselves actively cheering on the Colombian boys more than we had expected beforehand, because more Colombian goals would mean more noise, more atmosphere, more Seven Nation Army. We also got to drink beer at a big football game, which I took great pleasure in after all the times I’ve watched sad displays in mediocre English grounds and distinctly feeling that there were pint-sized voids in my hand and stomach.

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Our priority was always going to be the atmosphere, and on that front, 3-0 to Colombia including a Falcao goal was just about as good as it gets. Having decided to avoid the crowd and take a £15 taxi back to the city centre, having a drink in the oddly deserted Beerlozha before the occupying forces marched back into the city, we were able to swim upstream in the high street against the yellow river of celebrating Colombians coming back from the stadium while hailing their Tiger to the now very familiar White Stripes song. It was glorious, and I wanted to absorb every bit of the euphoria. We had ambitions of checking out Cuba Libre, a Latin American bar, but the queue was ridiculous – the double-edged sword of a wildly celebratory atmosphere anywhere in the world. Instead we strolled back towards Trinity, but were interrupted when we suddenly and unexpectedly spotted Juan and Cristian, our hostel roommates. They were more than happy to introduce us to their friends, allowing us to take part in the Colombian celebrations, singing along to “El Tigre Falcao” and just clapping our hands along to all the songs with more complicated Spanish lyrics.

As we made our way back to the hostel later that night I had three lingering thoughts. The first one was that it was a good thing that I hadn’t mentioned that I think Falcao is kind of overrated. The second was amusement at the fact that I had ever worried that this trip, this game, this tournament, would ever be anything other than undisputed success. The third was that I need to visit South America at the first opportunity.

World Cup 2018

Love of Matchday, Hatred of Penalties

Introductory note: This is an instalment of my recollections of the World Cup, which undeniably are wildly misplaced on a blog meant to bitterly berate the works of accomplished writers, but my own lack of commitment has meant that I’m doing this instead. If you want some context for the following few paragraphs, I can recommend The Arrival: Part 1 or The Arrival: Part 2. Honestly, reading just one of them should be enough, I mostly just whinge about the hostel landlady in both of them anyway.

It is amazing how much purpose football can give you. In all of England, in certain parts of Norway, and I’m sure everywhere else, matchday is a day. Football is not something that happens over the course of 2×45 minutes, you dedicate 8-10 hours to it, incapacitating you to get anything else done. I’ve lived in and around the Highbury area in North London for three and a half years now, and even though I’m not an Arsenal fan, I love being around on Matchday. The streets are full of people intoxicated on anticipation (And alcohol), shopkeepers will ask you for your predictions on the game, even if you’re not sporting any football gear, the local pubs are packed on the one day of the week that keeps them floating for the six days when there are hardly any customers. Matchday drives local economies throughout the world, as people are making sure to make a day of it, supporting not only pubs, but cafes, restaurants and grocery shops as well. It makes me wonder how American sports teams can just move from one city to another, and how devastating the consequences for the local community must be. I love North London, but I don’t think I would live there if it weren’t for all the things that are there thanks to the football. Or for the Matchday, the only weekly appointment people will show up to four hours early, both to enjoy themselves and to spread joy in the streets of a community that would be unrecognisable without it.

Even when I’m nowhere near the centre of Matchday, I can still feel it. I plan my day around it, be it at home, in a pub, or out with friends who will either partake in my Matchday rituals, or find themselves being abandoned. That being said, normally I only feel that sense of purpose myself when Liverpool is playing. But during the World Cup, it’s every day, pretty much regardless of the games. Am I particularly invested in the outcome of Belgium-Tunisia? Am I fuck. But I know that every kick of the ball is a piece of football history, a part of The Beautiful Game’s heritage that will be passed on. Even before the game started, I knew that long after I die, there will be some obsessive weirdo out there who will know the exact score of Belgium-Tunisia in Moscow on 23rd June 2018. That knowledge provides an incredible sense of purpose. I’m sure I would have enjoyed sitting in the middle of Kazan’s high street Ulitsa Baumana, drinking beer in the sunshine with my two travel companions regardless, but knowing that this was Matchday during the World Cup made it euphoric, even though this wouldn’t be one of the games we went to, and even after minimal sleep the previous 30 hours and having just fallen victim to a partially successful hostel scam.

Prior to the trip, I had done all the research I could on Kazan. Not because I’m a particularly fastidious traveller (I will refer you to the hostel debacle described in The Arrival: Parts 1 & 2), but just because I needed something to distract me from the agony of waiting for a World Cup to begin, especially one that I was going to witness in person. I sensed that Lars and Anders felt that I was taking some of the fun out of exploring the place. And there’s no denying that there is a lot to be said for serendipity, but the truth is that I couldn’t help it, it was a coping mechanism. Anyway, the most positive thing that came out of this was me always knowing where the closest pub with a TV screen was, potentially saving us from scurrying around 10 minutes before kick-off begging passers-by for information on where one might enjoy the pleasure of a game and a pint (Incidentally a scenario I had been in with Lars and Anders before, albeit in Bristol). So half an hour before Belgium-Tunisia, we calmly wandered down to Beerlozha at the bottom of Ulitsa Baumana, a pub rich in those two precious resources, beer and screens, according to the tourists guide I had pretty much memorised by heart.

The guides weren’t wrong. From the table we sat down by, we could see about three and a half screens, and the menu was filled with obscure, but very pleasant beer. There was also a glorious button on the table, that we could press to summon gorgeous Slavic women who attended to our beer-related needs. We gave a toast to the World Cup, the tourist guides and the glorious table button, before falling into observant silence as Belgium-Tunisia got underway.

I have a couple of things to say about Belgium, about the quality of their current players, about the stunning way they played in the tournament, but also about why I can’t get myself to support them, and about why I have very little faith that they’ll ever win an international tournament. But these thoughts wouldn’t be very suitable when I’m remembering a game that Belgium won 5-2, taking them to their second three-goal victory in five days. Consequently, I’ll save those thoughts for later, and will focus instead on the embarrassment to the game that is penalty kicks. I’m not talking about penalty shoot-outs, I’m talking about the fundamental unfairness of 90% of all penalties that are awarded, leading me to the conclusion that penalties should be either abolished or only given in extreme circumstances.

5 minutes into Belgium-Tunisia. Eden Hazard goes on a run towards the goal line, probably hoping to get a cross in. You never know when Hazard is on the ball, but the only Belgium player interested in being in the box is Romelu Lukaku, so it hardly looks like a dangerous situation. However, Tunisia’s centre back Syam Ben Youssef is overly eager to dispossess the Belgian maestro of the ball, comes in slightly too late, and knocks Hazard over. An honest attempt at the ball, in a situation that was nowhere near a goal-scoring opportunity. If this happens anywhere else on the pitch, Belgium are allowed to continue play from where the foul was committed, in the form of a free kick. Unfortunately for Ben Youssef and Tunisia, he made his challenge marginally inside the magic box, which grants the opposition a chance for a free shot on goal from close range, with only the goalkeeper being in the way. Does that seem fair? And this applies to a majority of penalties given. I think I only reached this realisation during the World Cup because of VAR. More accurate refereeing leads to more penalties, in the case of this tournament a staggering 29, because a lot of fouls are committed inside the magic box, on average this would seem to happen around once every two games. The reason penalties are under-awarded is that referees themselves know intuitively that the punishment so often does not fit the crime.

Ben Youssef Hazard
Tunisia’s Syam Ben Youssef narrowly misses the ball and takes down Eden Hazard centimetres inside the box.

It becomes even more intriguing when you read up on the history of the penalty. The spot kicks were not included in the original rules of the game, but were introduced as a health and safety measure as defenders would panic when the ball was close to their goal, hellbent on stopping it from going in, not caring much about what or who they kicked. This would lead to severe injuries, and so it was decided that fouls committed in the immediate area in front of one’s goal should carry a strict punishment, to make sure that defenders took more care when placing their studs.  These conditions surely do not apply to the game of today? If penalties were replaced by free kicks inside the area, do we really think the modern game would descend into carnage? Even if that is a possibility, can we not reach a solution with penalties only being given in cases of violent conduct or depriving an opponent of a goal-scoring opportunity? If the reason for introducing penalties no longer applies, what are the reasons for keeping them? IFAB, the governing body that determines the laws of the game, came close to the same conclusion a couple of years ago, when they decided that the “double punishment” of both conceding a penalty and getting sent off was too harsh for non-deliberate offences. Their solution was to eliminate the red card from these situations. In some ways a step in the right direction, but a step taken with the wrong foot.

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Trinity in Kazan during our first visit.

Having stumbled upon this epiphany, I needed to share it with Lars and Anders. At this point, we had moved on to Trinity, an Irish-themed bar closer to our hostel where the staff spoke surprisingly good English and the prices were ridiculously cheap. I felt at the time that I had stumbled upon some groundbreaking ideas, but the two of them more or less shrugged it off without providing much of a counter-argument. Potentially because penalties are just so ingrained in the game that it’s hard to convince people that football would actually be better without them. Or maybe because my two friends were visibly feeling the 36 more or less sleepless hours and were struggling to take an active interest in anything. Anders went back to the hostel to sleep ahead of South Korea-Mexico, but returned for Germany-Sweden, during which Lars kept falling asleep on his chair. Fair enough. I was grateful that they were willing to endure my relentless references to tourist guides and my overly opinionated rants about well established rules of the game, it would have been too much to ask that they take part in this level of enthusiasm. But when Toni Kroos scored the incredible stoppage time 2-1 winner, they celebrated as hard as me. In part because we were going to watch Germany in their last group game, and did not want to see them being knocked out beforehand, in part because a group of three Norwegians will always celebrate a Swedish defeat in the name of Scandinavian rivalry, and in part because the most magical moments of Matchday are too climactic to resist for anyone.

World Cup 2018

The Arrival: Part 2

Introductory note: This is an instalment of my recollections of the World Cup, which undeniably are wildly misplaced on a blog meant to bitterly berate the works of accomplished writers, but my own lack of commitment has meant that I’m doing this instead. If you want the few paragraphs to make any sense, you’ll probably want to read The Arrival: Part 1. Then give me some credit for at least not talking about myself in the third person anymore.

The hostel – or whatever resided in the ramshackle brick building where we had been led by the collective efforts of Hostelworld, Google Maps, a presumed parking attendant and the elderly Russian woman now guiding us through the corridors – was dark. This did not at all ease my suspicion that we were in fact in a crack den. Granted, the tiled floor and plastered walls seemed much better maintained than the exterior of the building, but the dim lighting could have been contributing to that impression. That could very well have been the main purpose of the dim lighting, alongside

  1. Saving electricity and
  2. Trying to minimise the number and intensity of heat sources in a building that was not well shielded from the scorching sunshine, and needless to say did not have air conditioning

We were guided into the kitchen, which did not look like a hostel kitchen at all, but at least it didn’t look like a crack den kitchen either (Though admittedly, I haven’t seen the interior of too many crack dens). It was exactly the type of kitchen you would expect an elderly Russian woman like this one to have – small, with basic appliances and a tiny wooden table next to the window, where she encouraged us to sit down. I use the word encourage rather than ordered even though her tone suggested the latter, because at this point I was still prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt. We did as we were told, while she got out a calculator and a few forms. She then started asking for all sorts of documentation, including our passports, visas (Which in our cases were Fan IDs) and a small paper note we had been given in passport control whose exact purpose I’m not quite sure of. She used these to note down things in her forms, while also taking pictures of all of them. She took ages doing this, giving us plenty of time to ponder in silence about whether we would come to regret not turning around and finding somewhere else the moment we were pointed to the black door in the brick wall.

Finally, she seemed satisfied, and we came to the issue of the payment. I knew that I had paid the deposit when booking the rooms back in December, and we were meant to pay the balance, which was 20-something thousand roubles, on arrival. So when the woman wrote down “27,000” on a piece of paper, I just pulled out my pile of newly acquired Russian currency, counted out 27,000 and handed it over. This was admittedly a mistake. I would like to chalk it down to a combination between the long overnight journey from London, the heat, and a wish to just have this over and done with after having waited for an unreasonable amount of time for this rather unpleasant lady to photograph my passport. But the truth is, I can have tendencies towards being a bit too trusting, if not naïve. Chances are that I would have given her the money she asked for even in a state of full alert, as I did remember the confirmation email telling me an amount of vaguely the same magnitude. But getting us to pay double deposit wasn’t enough. She sensed weakness now, and was going for the jackpot. She counted the 1,000 rouble notes, before turning over to Lars, sitting next to me, indicating that now it was his turn to pay. Only now did my alarm bells start ringing, and I tried asking her in slow, understandable English.

“Dvatsi-syem,” she said, pointing at me,

“Dvatsi-syem,” pointing at Lars this time,

“Dvatsi-syem!” predictably enough pointing at Anders.

I definitely would have remembered if we all had to pay that amount (Roughly £300) to stay in a hostel we had chosen on account of its costs. I opened the Hostelworld confirmation email on my phone, confirming what I already knew in completely unambiguous terms – one room for one night was 1,000 roubles, there were three of us and we were staying for nine nights. 9x3x1,000=27,000 in total. Additionally, it confirmed that we had already paid the 3,500 deposit, meaning we should actually only have to pay 23,500, as opposed to the 27,000 we had given her and the 81,000 she was demanding. I tried showing her, but she started talking into a useless translator app on her phone, which started spitting out incoherent English, including something about “special effects”. She wasn’t interested in seeing my confirmation email, apparently because it was in English, and my protests that numbers were still numbers, in Cyrillic or Latin, didn’t help. She eventually called a man who spoke English fairly fluently, who said he would come over and sort it out later that day. After he hung up, I made a half-hearted attempt to get the deposit of 3,500 roubles back, but yet again my tiredness and naivety drove me to giving up easily – I assumed we would get it back anyway when the English-speaking man showed up. We had no further contact with him nor the deposit money.

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Actual picture from the only hostel entrance. That’s right, the door that says “24/7”, but doesn’t specify what exactly is going on here 24/7.

The rest of the hostel didn’t do much to improve the first impression. The rooms seemed clean enough, and we were provided with dry towels (Absolutely anything was a bonus at this point), but there were no locks on the bathroom doors, something that seems like it would make female guests rather uncomfortable in what was a mixed gender hostel with unisex bathrooms. Additionally, there technically were safes there, but these safes, very much in line with the bathrooms, could not be locked, as all of the keys to these safes were gone, according to the lady’s translator app. I enquired as to what sort of astonishing chain of events could lead to this, to which the translator app threw out another cryptic response. The word “Supremacy” was mentioned a couple of times.

“Feels like we’ll get shit stolen here at some point.” Anders remarked while looking at the useless little metal boxes masquerading as safes.

“Nah,” Lars protested hopefully. “I’m sure this lady hangs around and keeps a close eye on things.”

“Exactly.”

Regardless of the slight anxiety surrounding our property, it was an enormous relief to be able to leave my luggage somewhere. I had decided to go straight to Heathrow from the office, and had therefore dragged my two packed holiday-bags with me into work the day before, meaning that I had been burdened with said bags for 26 hours at this point. I think my two companions felt similarly, as despite the shoddy hostel, there was a cheery, albeit a bit tired, atmosphere between us as we set out to explore the city that would be our home for the next ten days.

Important note: to some people, exploring a place is actually not a euphemism. So in the interest of avoiding confusion – what I, and my two fellow Norwegians, had in mind when we decided to “explore the city” was to sit down at the first place where we could find three outside seats and three beers, and thoroughly explore the nice weather and the 20 metres of pavement where we would be spending the next four hours, that is until the football was back on, starting with Belgium-Tunisia.

Uncategorized, World Cup 2018

The Arrival: Part 1

Introductory note: Cynical Reader is taking a break from not writing the snarky book reviews he is meant to be posting on this blog, and will instead be posting short texts about his adventures during the 2018 World Cup. These will include the raucous London pubs, setting up the office boardroom for match viewings, a short trip to Gibraltar, watching the final on a boat on the Thames, but most importantly the time spent in Kazan, Russia, watching The Greatest Show on Earth unfold up close. One might very reasonably argue that such a travel log/series of recollections from boozy pub trips has no place on a site intended for witty and mean-spirited musings about literature. Cynical Reader tried and failed to justify why he is posting this on his blog, before realising that it’s his blog, and he doesn’t have to justify a damned thing to anybody. He will, however, make more of an effort to not refer to himself in the third person.

The first big surprise was the language. I figured beforehand that not everybody would speak fluid English, and that if we ventured into a farmer’s market to buy vegetables from an elderly lady, the conversation would be a bit patchy. But we certainly didn’t expect communication to be such a momentous challenge at the bloody airports. Starting with the Russian passport controllers – those delightful rays of sunshine in human form, beaming with all the joy of someone who’s just been told that Christmas is cancelled for the next five years – and ending with the volunteers at the airport who was there specifically for the purpose of helping tourists through the Cyrillic labyrinth, barely anyone spoke half a word of English. And those who did tended to be quite stingy with the syllables.

“Fly?” the lady at the check-in counter at Moscow Domodedovo half-asked, half-stated to me.

“Sorry?”

“YOU FLY WHERE?”

If this was how it was at the airports, where you would think that a basic knowledge of the undisputed global lingua franca would be sought after in employees, I started dreading what communication would be like in everyday Russia. I decided to stay away from elderly ladies at farmer’s markets.

The second big surprise was the heat. 800 km directly east of Moscow would have fallen into my pre-World Cup definition of “Basically Siberia”, but as we exited Kazan airport, we were hit by 25 solid centigrades in an imposing sunshine. And it was still only 10 in the morning. The heat would turn out to be a double-edged sword for three Norwegians, two of whom (Not including myself, I’ll have you know) where born and raised inside the arctic circle. In between the outside drinks and sunny strolls up and down the high street we would suffer dehydration, dizzy spells and humid nights in the poorly ventilated hostel room. In retrospect, I think it was a good decision to do our World Cup trip in 2018, and not wait until Qatar 2022.

We dragged, carried and hobbled (Lars had taken a drunken fall from a tall fence the previous weekend, and his right foot was still suffering severe consequences) our way down the short route from the station where the airport shuttlebus had taken us towards the hostel we had booked for the duration of our 9 day stay. However, when we arrived at the suggested address, we couldn’t find anything there even resembling a hostel. After wandering back and forth in confusion, we decided to ask some uniformed women by a nearby parking lot. It is easy to assume that they were parking attendants, but if my assumptions about salaries in the Russian parking attendant industry are accurate, the uniforms they wore looked like they were worth more than a year’s pay. That didn’t make them unapproachable though, as they seemed more than happy to help us out, one of them even guided us to the right door, which was one we had walked past a couple of times, as it didn’t even occur to us that this was the entrance to the hostel we’d booked. It looked like a crack den. The side of the building facing the road looked like it had recently been given half a coat of paint, which did little to camouflage how run down the place was. To enter, we had to go into a short alley next to it, where the expensively uniformed lady pointed us to a black metal door in the decrepit naked brick wall, before walking back to her colleagues, leaving us no less confused than we were when we asked for directions in the first place.

We still couldn’t quite believe what we were seeing. We’d booked the room via Hostelworld, and admittedly not bothered much with the research, as we figured that a respected brand would have some sort of quality filter when it came to choosing partners. That naivety does make us part responsible for finding ourselves in the blistering heat in an alley in Kazan, standing in hesitant silence with all our luggage next to a brick wall with an unmarked black door. After a series of uncertain looks going between the three of us, Anders mobilised the courage to go up to the door and try to open it. I think we were all partially hoping that we wouldn’t be able to get in at all. At least that would take the decision about whether to try and find somewhere else to sleep, ideally somewhere that wasn’t a brick shed, out of our hands. So when the door turned out to be locked, we had mixed feelings about it, but I had already started making a plan for what to do next. Alas, the door opened, and out into the alley stepped a hunched-over Russian woman, I would estimate in her sixties. She was gesticulating aggressively towards the right hand side of the door, where there was indeed a small doorbell. Maybe we just hadn’t wanted to see it. She proceeded to wave us into the now open door, and we knew that at least the decision had indeed been taken out of our hands. This is where we were going to stay, so we all took deep breaths of the humid air, made brief eye-contact with each other, and then followed the Russian woman in, each one of us trying to navigate ourselves away from the position of being the first man through the door.

Reviews

Cynical Review: All Our Wrong Todays

There are a lot of bad books in the world. I know that, because I get many of them for Christmas every year. In all fairness, I’m not really blaming my friends and relatives for this – I tend to be non-specific regarding my wish list and tell them to go with their respective guts when buying me books. That way, I get to read a lot of books I wouldn’t have read otherwise. And as it happens, quite a few of these books are dreadful.

AOWT Reasons I get bad books

However, in the case of All Our Wrong Todays, I can blame nobody but myself. Except for Elan Mastai, the guy who wrote it. I blame him too. But this was a book I’d actually mentioned pre-Christmas as something I specifically wanted to read, and I can’t remember many books I’ve looked more forward to reading in recent years (Nudge, nudge, George RR). Especially when it was in the middle of my post-Christmas reading pile, in between dramatic-sounding but ultimately nonsensical action thriller titles and an actual children’s book (My father got me Bad Dad by David Walliams. He’s big on underwhelming ironic humour). The point is: There are a lot of bad books in the world. It is not necessary to make a good idea into another bad book.

The premise of the book is that the future people envisioned during the middle of the twentieth century actually happened, in all its teleporting, hover car-driving, space-touristing glory. However, a time travel mishap causes our protagonist to end up in our timeline, in all its train-commuting, reality show-inhabiting misery (Reality shows aren’t ever actually mentioned. I’m making a reasonable assumption about what someone from a superior society would judge ours for).

AOWT Problems with Our Multiverse

Sounds intriguing, right? I’m a sucker for a good premise and this one was irresistible. A lot of room for nuanced reflection around our society and technology, about predictions and coincidences, while at the same time leaving plenty of room for an entertaining story. But in the biggest waste of potential since Roy Hodgson was allowed to manage Liverpool FC, Elan Mastai defiles the world he has created by using it as nothing more than a backdrop for a cringeworthy, generic, and patronising young adult love story. Rather than embarking on experimental thinking about the pros and cons of our technological situation, this is a book almost exclusively about a wanky guy called Tom and his obsession with a girl called Penny (Well, technically two girls, as she’s different people in the different timelines. This book gives you all the confusion and paradoxes of a time travel novel without any of the thoughtful insight).

I mentioned in my review of It Can’t Happen Here that the big glaring problem with the book was a matter of priorities. The plot in and of itself is brilliant, but the tale of how a civilised society can drag itself into fascism is constantly interrupted by the goings-on in the private life of a news editor with a peculiar name (Doremus). Upon reflection, I’ve started to feel like this is actually the problem with most books – normally, a book won’t make it into publishing if there’s nothing appealing about the story. Books become bad when writers start caring about the wrong things and nobody around them says “Elan, dude, there is not a single humanoid in existence who gives a fraction of a shit about Tom and his Pennies.”

AOWT Reasons books are bad

(Sorry, normally I like to limit myself to only one Dan Brown-bash per post unless I’m actually talking about a Dan Brown book. I will be better in the future.)

In summary, I would like to make a suggestion to Mr Mastai. I declare on behalf of everyone who has read this book that we will happily return our copies to you and pretend like it never existed, on the condition that you re-write it, but get it fucking right this time. This arrangement is both very much in the spirit of the book, as we would be creating an alternative timeline of sorts, and additionally it would let me put the new book on my wish list for next Christmas, where it would take up a space under the tree that would otherwise be occupied by an action thriller with a dumb title.

Reviews

Cynical Review: Legends of The Firm

Legends of The Firm by Cass Pennant and Martin King was originally published in 2005, under the name Terrace Legends. This year, it has resurfaced with its unquestionably catchier title, but still with exactly the same content that earned it 34 ratings on goodreads.com. This humble number effectively means that only the closest and dearest friends and family of the two writers bothered to leave ratings. Ratings that averaged at 3.35 stars.

Having read it after picking it up at an airport, it really begs the question why someone would drag this inexcusable shitfest out of some bin that hasn’t been emptied for twelve years and then re-publish it. Incidentally, this has also lead me to my final verdict on books I discover in airport bookshops.

On the cover, it says that The Independent has called it “The most terrifying book ever written about soccer violence”. Let’s take this notion seriously for a bit despite the writer’s usage of the S word. The only way that this is even remotely accurate would be if we’re talking about the permanent brain damages clearly sustained by the two ex-hooligan authors. This barely has any right to call itself a book at all – it is a questionnaire with 29 responses. Is there room in the world for in-depth interviews and conversations with former hooligans, casuals and other trouble-making football enthusiasts? Yes. But it is not this book, which asks the same series of questions of everyone, including what sort of clothes they like and what their favourite band is. Those are in there, I’m not joking.

One of the many fundamental flaws of this is of course that people who consider repeated blows to the head to constitute an enjoyable day out might not be the best at expressing their inner workings. It would take a top interviewer to ask the right follow-up questions and make the right inferences. But the interviewers are no strangers to head trauma themselves, and consistently just move on to the next question on their pre-written list when the opportunity for a good follow-up presents itself. The result is 28 interviews with only laconic responses, and one Derby cunt whose dumb monologues make for almost one tenth of the entire book. And I want to be clear that I’m not using the word “cunt” lightly here. This guy, in addition to being a violent idiot who apparently gives long, self-important answers in interviews, blames the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989 on the Liverpool supporters, a narrative that has been thoroughly debunked. Hence, I will maintain my right to describe him in the aforementioned 4-lettered manner, and encourage anyone else to do the same.

If a seven-year-old with slightly reduced cognitive abilities accidentally ended up at a university, this book is basically what the appendix of his dissertation would look like. A series of uninteresting questions not explored or discussed at all, simply a transcript of awkward conversations with seemingly random questions.

However, both interviewers and interviewees consist of big, scary men with a proven propensity for violence, and hence none of the editors dared touch any of the text before it went to printing. So the inherent cowardice of the type of nerds who end up in the publishing industry would account for why the book was allowed to violate the paper it was printed on in 2005. Why publish it again? As I pondered this mystery, studying the cover, I realised that the answer was quite literally staring me in the face. This is what meets you when you, naive and uninformed, pick up Legends of The Firm:

A few yeas ago, former policeman James Bannon wrote a great book following the true story of his life undercover in the Millwall hooligans environment, and the subsequent development of blurring the line, split loyalties and identity crisis. It looked like this:

The snakes at John Blake Publishing, whose spinelessness caused the waste of ink that is Legends of The Firm to taint the world of published literature in the first place, took a look at Bannon’s work, correctly assessed that it’s a phenomenal book about hooliganism and football culture, concluded that they could somehow piggyback off it, then called their legal team to discuss the specifics of plagiarism laws in Britain. The result being a book that presumably is bought only by myself and like-minded Pavlov’s dogs and slaves to associations who read Running with The Firm and really liked it. Not only is this lazy, it is dangerous. I am mortified at the idea that my friends and acquaintances might stumble into WHSmith at Gatwick and buy Legends of The Firm based on my frequent and adamant praise of Running with The Firm. Which brings me to the main reason for why I’ve written this post, two and a half months after my previous one – I want this review to be unequivocal proof that I have not recommended anyone to read 29 daft questionnaire responses from violent morons who still somehow manage to be unbearably boring cover to cover.