The logistics of Russia are not for everyone. Most fans and journalists I have come across have lamented the distances between host cities, making it very difficult to get to numerous games without breaking the bank.
But spare a thought for Evgeniy. A football-mad Russian, propping up the bar at my hotel, heralds from Sakhalin, an island just north of Japan, which, of course belongs to Russia.
He was desperate to see some live World Cup action, so managed to bag tickets for Belgium v Panama in Sochi. Train travel, for him was not an option, as it would take over two weeks to travel the 8000km, overland, all within Russia, to get to Sochi on the Black Sea coast. Instead, after a mere ten hour flight, here he was, and he could not have been happier.
On our way to our second match of the tournament – Belgium v Panama – we went in search of some Belgium fans, to see if this really is going to be there year.
However, aside from three friends who insisted they show me what happens when Belgium score three goals (see the image below), the rest were conspicuous by their absence.
As we took the scenic route down to the coast to the stadium, I could not help feeling organisers had missed a trick. There were only a few bars, all spaced along the promenade, which meant very little pre-match atmosphere could be generated. All in the name of ensuring Sochi, not its less glamorous cousin 20km down the coast, Adler, is perceived as the host city.
Adler is actually a microcosm of Russia itself. Vast swathes of land sit unused, while the bits that are inhabited there remains a palpable disparity between the rich and the not so rich.
The closer to the stadium we got, the more Belgium fans started to appear, but still not in any great number. Turns out, less than a 1000 Belgians had made the trip across. Those Russian logistical issues are not for everyone.
Panama fans, be it enthused by a first-ever World Cup appearance, easily outnumbered Belgians five-to-one, with plenty of Russians adopting Panama as their adopted team for the day.
My Panamanian journalist friend in the Ranchero hat the previous day greeted me at the entrance in the slickest of blue suits. He did not look happy, sweltering in the 30-degree heat.
What a national anthem rendition! The lungs on some of the Panamanians are seriously impressive. The players certainly huffed and puffed throughout the match, too, but eventually Belgium, who anything but impressed me, had too much for the 55th-ranked nation.
The fans did not stop singing and dancing all game, with the loudest the Belgium contingent got being, on repeat several times, when the famous “Freed from Desire” boomed out of the stereo system after the match.
Post-match is the busiest time for me. Match reports, then waiting for players in the Mixed Zone. Once we had some Eden Hazard quotes, off we trekked back to the media centre to write them up, completely forgetting England were playing.
I arrived at my desk just in time for Tunisia to be awarded what appeared to be a dubious penalty, and watching England throughout my childhood came flooding back.
The English hacks were all scribbling away, but not overly productively as England pressed and pressed for a winner on the screens on every desk. Furious typing was interspersed with the odd groan or yelp, which raised everyone else’s attention away from their laptops.
Harry Kane’s winner brought everyone to their feet. Deadlines were pushed back ten minutes, but nobody seemed to care – football is coming home, and we will be bringing the trophy back with us in a month’s time.