During the World Cup, Yahoo Sport’s man on the ground Pete Hall will provide a daily diary of the sights and sounds of Russia.
In his first entry, he details his journey to the host nation…
It is finally here. After months, and months, and months of planning, it is off to Russia. The undertone of potential hooliganism, geopolitics and problems with racism have failed to quash my enthusiasm – this is the largest country in the world, where it’s people will want to show the world that Russia is modern, forward-thinking nation – what can go wrong?
So, with a copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace weighing down my backpack, and Soviet songstress Alla Pugacheva on my iTunes, my first destination is where all amazing adventures begin – Southend International Airport.
Lo and behold, the first people in the queue for our flight to Cologne are two Mexico fans, donning the most stereotypical sombreros you could imagine. A quick chat reveals their journey makes our three flights to Sochi – our first port of call – a breeze in the extreme.
WORLD CUP 2018 – LATEST NEWS AND ANALYSIS FROM YAHOO SPORT
Russia 2018: How to watch EVERY World Cup match – and keep your job
Football Cliches: Five cult heroes from World Cup history, and how their legacies live on
From Buffon to Bale: The big-name players who WON’T be at the World Cup 2018
Ranked! The 10 most iconic World Cup haircuts of all time
How previous World Cups would have been different with VAR
Cancun to Manchester for a few days, taking in the National Football Museum, then onto to London where Victor and Diego “fell in love”, without specifying who, or what, this love interest was, before joining us for the less-trodden path of Southend-Cologne-Moscow-Sochi.
As WiFi takes hold of my phone, I learn of the Spain news. Just incredible, and ruined my dream of a relaxed start to the World Cup on the Black Sea beaches of Sochi – tomorrow’s press conference will be explosive, and I will be there watching with utter amazement.
A quick change in Germany was not as efficient as you’d think, but we are soon on our way to Russia, where we are greeted by the least impressive welcome sign I have ever seen, before then hitting a rather imposing security check (see above).
Those harsh assumptions of Russian angst are quickly put to bed as everyone is super-friendly, even if their most dreary of grey uniforms are anything but. Even when being told to “Stand up straight!” at passport control, I am not intimidated, much.
The two-and-a-half hour fight to Sochi gives me time to research the city – an area of much controversy.
As soon as we arrive we are reminded of the cause of much of the recent derision. The Olympic rings look a little rusty after their erection for the 2014 Winter Olympics – the most expensive Olympic Games, summer or winter, in history – but the taxi driver is keen to point them out before our bags are even in the boot.
We drive through a blue Olympic ring, which represents Africa, apparently, on the way to our hotel. We are staying in Adler, which for marketing purposes is referred to as Sochi, despite being 45 minutes away by train.
SLIDESHOW: The 32 star players for every World Cup nation (Click image below)
Despite it being midnight after 16 hours of travel, I instantly feel relaxed by the vibe of the area. This is where Russia comes to holiday – the Russian Riviera – and the shops and speedo-clad tourists (even at midnight) confirm such.
With the hotly-disputed Crimea region a stone’s throw away, and the autonomous region of Abkhazia the other side of the Caucasus mountains, there is threat from all around, but in Russia’s only subtropical climate, everyone looks happy. As Tolstoy so eloquently puts it, you have to see the best in everywhere for true happiness.
Now, time for some rest before the drama of Spain’s implosion happening before my very eyes. What a month this is going to be!