Tuesday 25 September 2018

Postcard from Russia: Surviving cabin fever on a Russian night train

Euro 2020 will miss a place to share the common language of Beautiful Game

Fans take a break from their rail journey on their way to another World Cup adventure. Photo: Getty Images
Fans take a break from their rail journey on their way to another World Cup adventure. Photo: Getty Images
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

What a difference a few weeks makes. The fear that Russia would be a dreadful World Cup host has now been well and truly replaced by the realisation that it could be a while before there's a major tournament experience like this one for European fans. Six years anyway.

The pan-European 2020 experiment is at odds with the essence of a proper major tournament summer.

A winter World Cup in Qatar is wrong for all sorts of reasons. Placed against the appalling treatment of migrant workers to make it all happen, the plight of the fan looking to build a summer holiday around a tournament is an irrelevance.

But the feel of a football festival will be lost. On a practical level, regular travellers will find it harder to get the free time in November and December. Won't somebody think of the teachers?

There has been an old-school quality about the Russian experience which future tournaments simply will not be able to recreate.

A Euro 2020 spread across 12 countries will be bereft of the main quality: the fact that it brings a mishmash of nationalities into one place.


Capital cities become a hub for fans of the various countries who pass each other like jersey-wearing, beer-drinking ships in the night.

Greetings are exchanged, travel stories and experiences are shared. In Russia, train stations are the main conduit for that, with diverse crowds huddled around screens or illegal streams, all bound by the common language of football.

And then there's the night trains, the journeys that can range from hours to days, which have brought the masses from venue to venue.

This is the authentic way to get around Russia.

Each cabin contains two bunk beds, with a small area of standing room behind them, while a package containing bedding and a hand towel is provided. For the solo traveller, there's a lucky dip element when it comes to travel companions.

The Irish Independent's first slow coach to Nizhny Novgorod brought together four males of similar age who initially shuffled around awkwardly like strangers in a lift.

The divisions were clear; three foreigners wanted to sleep. A Russian native, who was en route to England's game with Panama, had prepared differently. Instead of climbing up to his top bunk, he sat at the edge of the bottom bunk which was occupied by this writer. This presented a dilemma. If you are desperate to sleep, is it acceptable to drop a massive hint by stretching out and squeezing a foot on either side of a local who has produced a can of beer from his Manchester United carrier bag? Is there a limit to the generosity of the Russian welcome?

There was plenty of time to mull this over as he stoically made his way through his off-licence purchase, but the percentage call was to drag the knees up closer to the chest in the hope it would convey an image of discomfort.

Out of solidarity, the French and German fellas on the other bunk lay awake too, and the tension was palpable as our friend eventually stood up and hinted he might be ready to call it a night by turning off the light.

Alas, the crisp fizzy sound of another can opening served as the death knell for any short-term sleeping plans. An hour or so later, he packed it in.

Them's the breaks. On the 12-hour overnight train to Kazan, the roommate was Rich, a photographer from Los Angeles, who was slightly fatigued by the welcome he was receiving at each location.

That's because Rich is black, and the last thing any man needs after a dozen hours in a cramped cabin is a local TV camera crew seeking you out for an on-the-spot interview because of your appearance. This wasn't the first time.

"Now I know what being a celebrity is like," he grimaced, before being asked to pose with a local girl who wanted a selfie.

It was well-intentioned, although state-funded English-speaking news station Russia Today's subsequent segment featuring vox pops of cheerful black guests saying they hadn't been racially abused risked veering into protesting too much territory.

Still, it's good to get a proper first-hand review from someone who was actually living it. The enclosed space demands interaction.

The trip back from Kazan in the aftermath of France's thriller with Argentina was spent in the company of a Buenos Aires media man who wanted to know about Ireland's plans to host the 2030 World Cup with England. (Argentina are bidding with Uruguay & Paraguay.) Sepp Blatter is still being taken seriously somewhere.

An Egyptian was able to provide the lowdown on the reasons behind their association's controversial choice of training base for this tournament which ended up landing Mo Salah in a photo op with Chechnya leader Ramzan Kadyrov (Short answer: greed).

Other conversations have been briefer. The topless Korean man strolling up and down the carriage practising martial arts movement was a nod-and-move-on merchant.

Two years from now, the closest thing to a 2020 central meeting point will be somewhere like Frankfurt Airport, and it's hard to get an atmosphere going around a baggage carousel or in Starbucks.

And Qatar? The island of Ireland is around seven-and-a-half times bigger, so the extent of internal travel will be a string of air-conditioned journeys for the lucky few.

That will be the World Cup of the hotel lobby. Even the budget options will be artificially created.

It won't be able to offer the feelings of confusion that come with being woken up by a Russian woman bellowing to rouse a compartment of sleeping ogres as their destination is near - a message delivered with the tone of an overworked parent telling their kids to get up for school.

Of course, 2020 would be special if Ireland qualified. There will be a novelty value there too, the opportunity to share the experience with older or much younger family members that would never be candidates to follow Joxer and the lads.

Whatever your take on Russia's progress, it was hard not to be struck by the atmosphere around the Luzhniki in the aftermath of Sunday with fans of all ages caught up in the moment. It would be nice to sample that feeling around Dublin two summers from now.

And then tell a stranger all about it on the night train to Buenos Aires in 2030.

Irish Independent

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