Yesterday saw us wake up at 4.30am to catch a train from St Petersburg – where we were based for the previous 3 days – to Moscow, for the opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Stereotypical visions of a wooden cart on wheels were vanquished when we turned up to see a very nice looking bullet train. A smooth journey with plenty of room, the train was far better than anything I’ve been on in the UK. And, at a cost of just £60 for a 350 mile 3.5 hour journey, we will likely do the journey again during the latter stages of the tournament when we will be moving frequently between the two cities.
I edited another 30 photos from the England training session the day before in the hope that the papers will pick some up for the next day’s editions. Unfortunately, the England team went bowling back in Repino, so those photos naturally dominated the papers instead.
We arrived in Moscow at 9am, exactly on time. We ordered an Uber which, after a short detour around the block trying to find us, arrived to take us to our hotel where things started to go wrong…
After being dropped off, we walked up to a very grand looking building which looked as if it was previously the home of a Russian Tsar. Much Russian was mumbled between the two receptionists and it took nearly an hour to get checked in, much of which was taken up with a receptionist photocopying every page of our passports, including the blank ones. “The rules” apparently.
Instead of a room inside the hotel, we were directed to a filthy, dilapidated shack within the grounds of the hotel. Neither of us are snobs, and we’ve both stayed in some decidedly dodgy places, but neither of us wanted to stay here. We decided to leave our suitcases locked together, head to the stadium and deal with the problem later as time was ticking away.
The areas surrounding the stadiums are on lockdown so it’s difficult to get close by public transport or taxis. Instead, we headed to the nearest FIFA approved hotel where FIFA are organising shuttle buses to and from the ground. Due to the ridiculous length of time it took to get checked in to our luxury shack, we missed the 11.20am departure and had to wait for the next one at 1.20pm. With time to kill we looked online for another Moscow hotel but found nothing suitable. We asked the reception if they had any rooms and thankfully they did, so with two more days in Moscow, we decided to stay there and take advantage of the shuttle buses.
Our bus departed on time but after fighting through the awful Moscow traffic we arrived at the Luzhniki Stadium around 2.45pm, for a 6pm match. In England, this would be fine, but for the opening match of the World Cup, it’s positively late and we missed the chance to shoot much of the build-up, such as security, fans and general views of the stadium.
For each match, we are allocated a priority group: 1, 2 or 3, depending on our priority for the match. Russian photographers and photographers from the two nations involved get the highest priority. After that, it seems to be picked at random. Within your group, you’re then given a ticket which is your position within the group, which is first come, first served. We were both allocated group 2 – not bad – but as we arrived so late, we were near the back of our group. There were over 90 photographers on the waiting list so it could have been much worse.
Stress levels – both ours and seemingly everyone else’s – were high. Much pushing, shoving, and line-cutting ensued before we finally got allocated our pitch position around 4.30pm. I was halfway down the side of the pitch. Not ideal but often the ‘ideal’ positions end up far from it. I’d only eaten a sandwich on the train while my Dad hadn’t eaten all day so we quickly grabbed something to eat from the media cafe, and we headed out into the stadium.
I shot fans in the crowd, including some colourful Colombians and Mexicans who dressed for the occasion, but I didn’t see the blonde Russian woman who adorned the pages of every national newspaper this morning which - for strictly professional reasons - was a shame.
The opening ceremony soon began where Robbie Williams was performing alongside Russian opera singer Aida Garifullina. Robbie was always going to get a lot of interest back home, but the coverage increased ten-fold after he decided to ‘flip the bird’ to the camera. I didn’t even realise what he’d done until after the match but that’s unsurprising as TV did their best to block our view of everything.
After speeches by Putin and FIFA President Gianni Infantino, the first match of the 2018 World Cup started. After a very stressful day, I started to relax and enjoy the match. I was lucky enough to be at a World Cup and, although I had a job to do, I didn’t want a bad day to ruin the occasion.
Russia ran out comfortable 5-0 winners. They played some good football and scored a couple of nice goals but I think the score was more a reflection of the Saudis abilities than the Russians. Occasionally photos from the wrong end work well and the first goal was thankfully one of those occasions. I quickly sent it off and relaxed a bit more. I’d got the first goal of the tournament. I managed to miss the next 3 goals, however, the celebration for the 3rd goal ran straight towards me. I stayed tight on the long 400mm lens and got some nice celebrations.
After the match, we headed back to our new hotel via the shuttle bus. We ordered a taxi and collected our suitcases from the shack, before asking the taxi driver to stop at a 24-hour McDonald’s. I do wonder what he thought of us but he was very helpful.
The 4.30am start and a very long, stressful day got the better of us, and despite having hundreds of photos to sort through, we devoured our late night McDonald’s and went straight to sleep.
On today’s agenda was the pre-match press conference and training for the Argentina v Iceland match. Argentina were training at 10am, 80km outside Moscow, so we decided to skip it and just photograph Iceland training and both press conferences.
With just 15 minutes of access to the training and only the first 3 questions in the press conferences, the day failed to produce many good photos. Some of our colleagues had travelled on the overnight train to St Petersburg for the Morocco v Iran match and we expect they were in the same boat until a 96th-minute own goal from Morocco!
I hoped that we’d get the chance to photograph Messi at the press conference but we had no such luck, with poor Nicolas Tagliafico the unfortunate recipient of various groans as he entered the room. It seemed I was not the only one hoping for him. The first question was from a Bangladeshi journalist who asked the manager why Messi never attends; it’s a shame the reply was in Spanish as I’d love to have known his response.
Between the media activities, we edited our remaining photos from yesterday’s match and caught up on some general admin, as well as watching the other matches on today on the screens in the media centre.
I received a message from back home that I had a photo of Robbie Williams in the Daily Express, and upon checking, I noticed that one of the others on the same page was mine too.
Overall, it was a much more relaxing day today. Tomorrow, we will get a chance to photograph Messi as he and his teammates take on the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup, and England’s conquerors two years ago at Euro 2016, Iceland.