Flights back from Volgograd to Saint Petersburg were expensive on the day after the England match so we opted to stay in the city for an extra day before flying back to Saint Petersburg via Moscow on Wednesday.
We’d timed our schedule so we’d leave Volgograd around 9:30am and arrive in Moscow at 11:30am, with enough time to get across the city to photograph Portugal v Morocco at the Luzhniki Stadium, then back to the airport to catch a comfortable 10:40pm flight to Saint Petersburg. Unfortunately, the airlines had other plans.
Upon checking-in to the flight the night before, we realised that our departure now said 11am. The airline had changed the departure time and it was looking unlikely we’d make the match. We later discovered that they’d sent an email at 8pm, just 13 hours before departure, informing us of the change but the email had gone straight to our spam folders. Not that we’d have been able to do much at that point anyway.
At the time we were still not 100% sure when the plane would depart so we arrived at the airport early just in case it would depart at the earlier time.
We arrived at the airport and the departure board said 11am. We weren’t going to make the match. My Dad even managed to spill a coffee all over himself as we were waiting to check-in. The wonders of next to no sleep!
When we eventually checked in the staff let off an audible “woah” as my backpack weighed in at 18kg, a mere 13kg over the hand luggage limit. A little charm, an apology and a flash of the FIFA accreditation and they let me through. Dad followed and went through the same procedure, with a little extra persuasion required as his hold luggage also weighed-in over the limit. Having the FIFA pass pays off sometimes as most airlines seem to understand that our situation is a little unique and that we cannot put our expensive, fragile kit in the hold.
If a photographer is not at the ground 1-hour before kick-off, the positions are allocated to those on the waiting list, so after landing at Sheremetyevo International Airport, we phoned the stadium to inform them that we would be there, but we were running late.
We got a taxi which did its best to fight through the crazy Moscow traffic and get us to the ground on time but we ended up arriving in the stadium media centre around 3:25pm, 25 minutes after the start of the match. Predictably, our positions had been given away so we sat in the media centre disappointed. We don’t seem to have much luck in Moscow.
If nothing else, we had some time to eat some food and for some more admin: checking in for the later flight, clearing off laptops again, writing blog posts and editing photos.
At around 7pm we got another taxi to Vnukovo airport (our third Moscow airport for those who are keeping count) for our flight to Saint Petersburg with Pobeda. Pobeda are a budget subsidiary of Aeroflot and, having heard the good experiences of our colleagues with the parent company, we thought all would be well. How wrong we were. Their hand baggage allowance was less than half the size of our Think Tank bags and the check-in staff would not budge, refusing to allow us on with our cases. Both of us have flown with budget airlines many times before and, although some have taken some persuasion, all have seen sense eventually and allowed us on with our fragile kit.
We spoke to a supervisor and explained the situation. Even she refused to help much, suggesting that we paid for excess baggage and put the cameras in the hold. Eventually, after a massive argument with both the supervisor and check-in staff, we had to pay 3,000 rubles each (around £35) for excess baggage and we would have to take our bags to the plane and argue with the cabin crew, with no promise that they would allow them in the cabin. We asked the supervisor to write a letter in Russian to the cabin crew explaining the situation in the hope that a little authority might help.
Upon reaching the plane the staff predictably tried to put out bags in the hold and only the letter from the supervisor saved us, as they eventually relented. Another lesson learnt, don’t fly Pobeda.
We landed in Saint Petersburg an hour later, grabbed another McDonald’s – it was all that was open and due to the hassle in Moscow we hadn’t eaten – and got a taxi to our hotel. We were both shattered and thoroughly fed up and we immediately crashed out. It was by far the worst day we’ve had out here, thanks to two airlines who have apparently never heard of customer service.
Despite the stress, I went to sleep considering a 12-hour round road trip to Aberdeen for Burnley’s Europa League qualifier which had been announced that day.
The next morning we were due to cover England training at their training camp in Zelenogorsk. Getting out of bed was a struggle but after a 1-hour taxi journey (around £15 including tolls) we arrived at the small stadium. The story was about Gareth Southgate, who had dislocated his shoulder two days before and had been pictured wearing a sling. Unfortunately, he decided not to wear one for training as he didn’t want to embarrass himself in front of the press.
The training session was the one where the now infamous photo was taken of Steve Holland holding the line-up for Sunday’s match. Only two photographers spotted it and neither of us was one of them, unfortunately. The furore about the media publishing the photo has been incredible. It was an open training session and Holland should have been savvy enough to know that if it’s visible to the media, it will be reported on. There was no trickery involved, in fact, it was shot on a standard 400mm lens while he stood quite near us.
Contrary to the first training session we shot when England first arrived in Russia, we were only allowed access for the first 15 minutes. I got a few nice photos but it’s always difficult when constrained to just the beginning of a training session as the players are warming up and not much happens.
We had a few hours to wait for the England press conference in the afternoon so we headed to the England press centre at a hotel in Repino, where we soon realised how the other half have been living. Food and drink were on tap, as was a PlayStation with FIFA 18, a pool table and a 4-lane bowling alley. Many of the English press have been based in Repino and are solely concentrating on England. Some have paid nearly £30k to be on one of the media tours where everything, including all travel and accommodation, is provided.
Our schedule is much more demanding but I wouldn’t swap it for 5-weeks camped out at the England base. We’re getting to experience Russia and much more of the World Cup itself, at a fraction of the cost that some are paying - even if we do have to forsake some of the creature comforts others are enjoying.
Trent Alexander-Arnold was the England player on press conference duties but Jesse Lingard, John Stones and Kieran Trippier all came to the media centre for interviews, darts or just a spot of 10-pin bowling in the case of Lingard. The players were very relaxed and open, and the atmosphere around the camp seems fantastic.
We got another taxi back to the Saint Petersburg where the lack of sleep eventually caught up with me as I crashed out in the back seat. We found a local restaurant and ate our first non-media centre meal in days. A square meal, a couple of beers, double vodkas at around £1 each and an early night did the trick and the next morning I felt vaguely normal and refreshed again.
On Friday was the Brazil v Costa Rica match at the most expensive stadium in the world, the Krestovsky Stadium in Saint Petersburg. We were flying to Nizhny Novgorod for the next England match that evening so we packed up our suitcases and kit and headed to the ground.
We ordered a taxi to the nearest FIFA hotel and jumped on a shuttle bus to the stadium. Thankfully we were the only ones on the minibus as we took up half of it with our kit.
The stadium is located on a small island and the whole island was closed off to traffic. Thank god we’d got a shuttle as we’d have otherwise faced a 2-mile walk to the stadium as the police were refusing to allow taxis any closer.
Every stadium has airport-style bag scanners which you must go through before getting access to the stadium. Not much fun at the best of times but with suitcases laden with various chargers, electronics and clothes, as well as our usual camera kit, it took a while to get through. It was not helped by the security guards asking us to open up our suitcases and inspecting every inch of it, even after they’d been through the scanners.
The stadium looks like a giant spaceship which has crash-landed next to the Gulf of Finland and it was very impressive, which it should be considering it cost upwards of $1.1 billion.
We were in the second priority group this time but we still managed to secure two of the last remaining positions behind the goal at the end Brazil would be attacking second half.
We shot some fans arriving at the stadium. I then quickly borrowed a 16-35mm from Canon to put on the fourth camera I keep at my feet, with my own 16-35mm on the remote camera behind the goal.
The match started with Brazil piling on pressure against their relatively close neighbours but they were unable to find a breakthrough. Everyone in our corner was pleased with the situation as we hoped that Brazil would save their goals for the second half when they were facing us.
Brazil failed to score and went in at half-time at 0-0. It was all set up for a winning goal at our end but as the second half progressed it seemed that we were about to experience the first goalless match of the tournament. Then Brazil were awarded a penalty for a dubious-looking foul on Neymar. After a short delay, the referee decided to review the decision with the VAR and reversed his initial decision. It was great to see a dive not being rewarded but a Neymar penalty up my end would have been great in a match which hadn’t produced many photos so far.
Then, in the first minute of stoppage time, Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho poked the ball home. I got the goal but he celebrated on the other side of the goal, right down the lens of all the big agencies. Then, a couple of minute’s later, Neymar converted to put a bit of gloss on the scoreline. This time, I missed the goal (I focussed on the goalkeeper Keylor Navas instead) but the celebration ran into our corner.
The two late goals meant Brazil enter their final game with the fate in their own hands and the relief was palpable at the final whistle when Neymar broke down in the centre circle.
After the match, I checked the remote camera. I’d managed to fill the 16gb card completely before the two goals so once again, I had nothing to show for my efforts. My foot pedal is working well but I’ve still not mastered it. On top of that, some of the photos were corrupt. I’ve been trying to track down the problem. It’s either the camera or memory card. One is an easy fix (the card goes in the bin) but if it’s the camera I’ll be paying yet another visit to the helpful Canon folks.
I forced everything into my suitcase - sorry to any fellow photographers whom I subjected to the sight of my underwear as I repacked everything in the middle of the media centre - and then we jumped on the metro into the city centre, away from the exclusion zone, to then get a taxi to the airport. The taxi took a while to arrive and we misjudged how long the journey would take, so we ended up catching our flight by the skin of our teeth. Thankfully this flight was with S7 Airlines, whom we had previously flown with and whom we knew were no trouble.
I edited 10 more photos as we taxied to the runway and managed to FTP the last one literally as the planes wheels left the ground. The two-hour journey flew by as I edited some more. Again, there was no time for food before flying so another late night McDonald’s was in order before I eventually finished the edit at 3am back at the hotel.
Next up, England take on Panama in their second group match.