Saturday 20 October 2018

England set for quiet life at base far removed from any tournament tensions

Gareth Southgate will be away from prying eyes. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
Gareth Southgate will be away from prying eyes. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

Paul Hayward

There is no risk of England being mobbed by adoring Russians in Repino, a quiet training base north of St Petersburg that feels like Finland with a touch of Florida. One resident hinted that locals would be more likely to support Germany than Gareth Southgate's men in this World Cup if the hosts went out.

Vera Ivanovna's house adjoins the Spartak Zelenogorsk stadium, rebuilt to accommodate England's squad as they prepare for group games against Tunisia, Panama and Belgium. Ivanovna played as a girl on the pitch near Repino but struggles to see it now above the high fences raised to protect England's privacy.

In a garden lined with flowers - her peonies stood out - Ivanovna said: "It's really high security, but we need that. It needs to be secure because people think Russians are all terrorists and evil people. The screens went up. We were watching but they built the fence and we can't see any more."

Despite the political friction evident in those remarks, Repino is a mellow place, with no major attractions but enough recreational outlets to offer England's players the odd escape from their hotel, which looks like a ski lodge. There is a climbing park called Tree to Tree, a small zoo, a "Repino Club" resort and a modern burger joint called True Burgers, with a replica mincing machine on the roof: a warning, perhaps, about what will happen to English football if it crashes out at the group stage again.

On the scale of England training camps, Repino belongs alongside La Baule (France 98) or Awaji Island (2002 World Cup): quiet coastal spots, but in this case with one of the world's great cities a 45-minute drive away.

Here, money and power migrate up the coast - a bit like in Lancashire, around Formby and Southport, only with oligarchs.

Three blocks from the seafront, which is skirted by forest, luxury houses redolent of New England loom between the trees. Many are gated and silent.

Some locals believe Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has one of his properties on this northern side of town.

In 2012, England stayed in the centre of Krakow and mostly liked it. In 2014, they fell foul of Rio de Janeiro's logistics for a brief stay in a military training centre on the rocks. Two years ago in France, England bedded down in Chantilly, a grand setting for a rotten ending, against Iceland.

The English obsession with training grounds stems mainly from a morbid fear of what boredom might do to the players. Here in Russia, the team's first realisation needs to be that the host country is on high alert against external threats, and was sharply attuned to internal security anyway, even before it took a leading role in the war in Syria, with the threat of "blowback".

Nyet is a word you need to get used to, because nobody is allowed to wander in uninvited, as we discovered at the team hotel.

The police and security services around Repino are hyper-alert, so the players are not in an environment where they might head out in ones and twos to explore the forests on mountain bikes.

In St Petersburg, entering a shopping centre or metro station requires you to put your bag through a scanner. And in that city, which is visible from Repino first in the shape of the immense Gazprom tower, England's players could visit the Hermitage - probably the world's biggest museum - the Winter Palace, where the Bolshevik revolution took symbolic hold, or the Dostoevsky or Faberge museums.

They could learn of Peter the Great, Stalin's purges, the 900-day siege at the hands of the Nazis or Putin's rise through the St Petersburg KGB to become president.

Some will take parts of this in, but the pattern most days will be hotel, training ground, hotel, before trips to Volgograd, Nizhny Novgorod and Kaliningrad.

Already, you can see this is a World Cup of logistics and language barriers and moderate expectations when it comes to a social life for the participants (though World Cups have a habit of transcending such limits).

Ivanovna, with her proximity to England training, is not familiar with Trent Alexander-Arnold or Nick Pope but thinks Gareth Southgate's team will be "strong". She says: "I'm not really a football fan but, of course, I've heard of David Beckham, Zidane and Pele."

Ivanovna says "we're going to support our guys" and if Russia go out, "we'll support one of the other countries, maybe Germany". Not England?

"They were a great power but now their politics have become so petty." We elect not to pursue that line of logic and instead stick to peonies and how to call a taxi back to St Petersburg. Southgate's players - and the FA's staff - will need to fall back on their own resources in Repino and accept that trips out will be low key and probably uneventful, with a view of the Gulf of Finland from dark sand beaches providing plenty of time for contemplation.

Or they could try the Hotel Casablanca near the main cluster of resorts. Of all the gin joints in all the towns, England have walked into this one. It could be a lot worse. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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