Next up was England’s opening match against Tunisia in Volgograd, or Stalingrad, as it was known until 1961. As they are in Group G, England’s first match was one of the last to be played and I’ve been getting slowly more excited as the tournament has progressed. Although we’re out here working, I’m still a massive football fan and one of my earliest football memories was being at Wembley in 1996 watching England beat Spain on penalties.
We departed our Moscow hotel at 6am on Sunday and got an Uber to the airport. Uber only operate in the capital and Saint Petersburg but they’ve been fantastic for getting around, and very cheap too. It’s nice to know you won’t be ripped off or taken to the wrong destination because of a language issue! He even managed to negotiate a huge traffic jam after a big crash on the Moscow ring road.
After a relatively quick, painless check-in and security process (always a concern when you’re trying to get a 25kg backpack full of cameras on as hand luggage) we were in the air and heading down to Volgograd with many England fans who had travelled into Moscow either that morning or the night before. I think our pilot had one too many in-flight vodkas as he seemed to forget how to land the plane but after a very bumpy landing we touched down in the city of Volgograd.
Upon arriving at the airport we were greeted by the ever-enthusiastic World Cup volunteers who helped us download another taxi app, Yandex, and find our apartment.
With a little help from a drunk Russian local – who demanded a 100 ruble payment for his hospitality – we found the correct apartment. The apartment was a fantastic find: two nice rooms, faster internet than I get at home and a mere 10-minute walk from a McDonald’s. Perfect.
We rested for a couple of hours before heading off to the stadium to photograph the pre-match press conferences and Tunisia training. The England team have opted to train at their base in Repino rather than at the stadiums. We both think it would surely be better to train at the stadiums and get acquainted with the pitch and surroundings? It would have suited our schedule too but alas, just the “pressers” it is for us.
Tunisia training was first up and we breathed a sigh of relief as the players walked out in training kits with their numbers on. Captioning just got 100% easier.
The two press conferences followed with the photographers being allowed the standard five minutes of access before being “invited to leave” as the press officer described it. I’d taken the hood off my 400mm so as to not block the TV camera behind me and accidentally left it in the room. The hood alone costs over £400 so I waited 15 minutes for the press conference to finish then went in and grabbed it. Not ideal as the other photographers now had a 15-minute head start sending in their photos.
I ate some more media centre food – chicken nuggets and pasta – before we left the stadium to get a taxi back to the apartment. It was then that we discovered the delights of the Volgograd mosquitoes. Much has been made in the press about the little critters and they were genuinely horrible. I must have over 20 bites on my legs, arms and neck, and they were everywhere.
We took a detour on the way home via a massive supermarket where I sent Dad inside to buy some essentials supplies. I waited in the taxi and he came out 20 minutes later laughing, after asking some amused locals to help him find butter and chocolate. We got back to the apartment in time to relax and watch the second half of the Brazil v Switzerland match. Despite being at a World Cup we have watched very little football. I also discovered 9 online usages of my photos on the MailOnline and The Sun websites from the early media activities, which were a nice surprise.
The next morning, after a bit of a struggle getting out of bed, we arrived at the stadium around 10:30am, a full 10 and a half hours before kick-off at 9pm, to ensure we were first and second in the priority queue to choose our positions. Some may consider that excessive, but as two of the very few freelancers out here we need to do everything we can to give ourselves the best chance of success. Even at that time, the stadium was in lockdown and our taxi driver failed to charm his way past the police cordon so we walked 20 minutes to the stadium, in 28-degree heat, being attacked by mosquitoes the entire way.
At the stadium, we did some more essential admin, such as clearing off space on our laptops, then we went outside to photograph the Motherland Calls, a 279ft high statue located near the stadium in memory of the Battle of Stalingrad in WWII and once the tallest statue in the world. The walk up took around an hour, with some breaks to take photos of fans milling around, the vast majority of which were Tunisian.
As we got near the top there was an inside monument called the Eternal Flame, where two soldiers flanked a massive torch which lit up the names of soldiers who lost their lives at the Battle of Stalingrad. A very moving tribute. Some fans lay flowers in remembrance and wrote in the book of condolences while others were slightly less tactful and posed for selfies.
We reached the top of the hill where the gigantic statue which towers over the city. The hill offered a great view of the stadium. It was here that a slightly drunk Russian man struck up an amusing conversation with an England fan.
“Ah. Chelsea fan? Tottenham?”
Safe to say, the Russian hadn’t heard of the London team from Griffin Park.
We then jumped on a tram – free with our ever-useful FIFA accreditation – and went into the city centre in the hopes of finding some fans. We got off at Lenin Square, which unsurprisingly, was home to a big statue of Vladimir Lenin. A short walk from there was the museum of the Battle of Stalingrad, which has a building, Grudinin’s Mill, untouched since the end of the war. Another fascinating place steeped in history. Again, we encountered plenty of Tunisian fans but no English.
It seems the fear of violence and the sheer cost of travel is keeping England fans away. Contrary to the reports before the tournament, we’ve found the Russians to be very helpful, hospitable and friendly, and they are throughly enjoying the tournament. Moscow is not quite as welcoming as the other cities but it’s no different from any major metropolis such as Paris or London.
We jumped back on the metro and headed another stop down to the FIFA Fan Fest, a huge outdoor expanse where fans can watch the matches on giant screens and soak in the atmosphere of the tournament. We’d hoped to find at least some English fans here but found none. However, the Tunisians were in fine form again.
It was clear the England fans were a lost cause so we took the tram back to the stadium, only to be stopped at the edge of the cordon. No more trams to the stadium. Another 20-minute walk to the media centre. By this time my Dad had massive blisters on his feet and I felt a bit guilty for dragging him around Volgograd in the search of photos.
A quick edit of around 60 photos followed and then I took a trip to Canon as my new 1DX had developed a problem the night before. The locking pin which keeps the lens in place had got stuck. It was bent apparently so they put a new pin in it and cleaned the sensor, all for free. Their help out here is invaluable. I also took the opportunity to borrow a 1DX Mk II and a super-wide 11-24mm lens. I only have one short lens on me due to luggage constraints, and it goes on my remote camera behind the goal so having a 2nd one for any close celebrations or general views is handy.
At 6pm, we chose our positions. Dad took one of the few positions available on the managers’ side to photographers who don’t belong to the major agencies such as Getty and Reuters, who are pre-allocated positions and don’t need to go through the selection process us mere mortals do. I was going to go in the same corner, but the volunteers didn’t have the tickets for the positions which were marked as free on their map. Instead, I settled for a position on the other side of the goal as close to the corner flag as possible as the England players have a tendency to celebrate right in the corner.
After a quick dinner – nuggets with pasta this time – I walked out into the stadium to set up my remote camera. I’ve opted to trigger the camera with a foot pedal, rather than the radio controlled triggers I usually use, as they’re often unreliable at big games due to the interference from the electronic advertisement boards and various other radio devices. Running the cable is a bit of a pain but worth the hassle.
A few very average fan photos later – other countries have fans who dress up in wacky outfits and wear face paints whereas the English are frankly a bit boring – it was time for the pre-match ritual. I spotted Rebekah Vardy, the wife of Jamie, and some other women in the crowd who looked like “WAGs”. Like all fans at the tournament, they were wearing a very-handy Fan ID lanyard around their necks with their names on. I made sure I got a clean shot and later worked out I’d photographed the partners of Jack Butland and Harry Maguire. If everyone wore name badges it would make this job a lot easier.
We opted to cover England both halves, so we found a couple of spare seats behind the goal where England were attacking in the first half. Unlike Moscow, the match was under-allocated and there were lots of spare seats and room to move. I’d decided to sit down the side in one of the first positions, but at the last minute, I chose to sit very tight to the goal instead and try to get something different, a decision I’d come to massively regret.
England started strongly and had at least five good chances within the first half an hour. On 11 minutes, a corner was headed down by John Stones, parried by the Tunisian goalkeeper and Harry Kane converted to put England 1-0 up.
I assumed the header was going in and stayed focussed on Stones, reacting far too late to get a photo of the goal. Harry ran past me quicker than lightning and all I had to show for it was a couple of very side-on celebration photos and some photos of the bundle in the corner. In short, I messed it up.
To rub salt in the wound, the best position for the celebration was down the side where I was going to sit. I was disappointed in myself for not getting the goal and kicking myself for not following my gut and sitting down the side.
Not long after, Kyle Walker conceded a penalty at the other end. I got the foul and subsequent goal. At least I now had something in the bag and I knew if England were to score another that would be the photo that would be plastered over the front and back pages the next day.
Half time came and I walked back to my chosen position where I’d set up my foot pedal. I edited some photos from the first half but obviously rested my foot on the pedal without realising as I filled my memory card up with 1,200 photos of the net at half-time. Things were not going well.
England pressed in the 2nd half and were unlucky not to get a penalty themselves, but they couldn’t find a way through. I was frustrated, both as a fan and a photographer. However, I knew that one goal from England could change everything.
Thankfully, up stepped Harry Kane to win the match with a stoppage-time header. I got the goal, he ran into my corner, celebrating like mad before he was jumped on by his teammates. I grabbed the borrowed 11-24mm and quick-footed it from my position to the corner where they were celebrating, throwing my chair out of the way in the process, and managed to fire off a few close-up celebration photos.
The final whistle blew and Southgate came over to the fans and celebrated. I then photographed the fans who were celebrating wildly in the crowd, including two portly lads who decided now was a perfect time to express their love for each other with a nice kiss on the lips. Nobody tell Putin!
It’s not often that your favourite photos are all taken after the 91st minute of a match but I was pleased to have got the winning goal and relieved to make up for my cock-up with the first goal.
After a non-alcoholic Budweiser – the media centre is an alcohol-free zone – to celebrate and a quick edit, we left the stadium. The exclusion zone was still in place so we had yet another 20-minute walk to get a taxi. In total, we had each walked around 15km that day and it’s only the first England game. What’s it going to be like if England progress to the latter stages?
The next day we had a lay-in, did a further edit of the match, had a luxury feast of McDonald’s and then headed to the FIFA Fan Fest in Volgograd where they were showing the Russia v Egypt match on the giant screen. Dad’s blisters were causing him a lot of pain so we got another taxi as near to the Fan Fest as possible. We were dropped off next to some World Cup murals I’d seen photos of previously, so I quickly fired off a few frames.
We queued up alongside fans at the security checks, only to be told we weren’t allowed in as we didn’t have an additional “Fan Fest Pass”. Worse still, the accreditation centre was now shut so we couldn’t acquire one. Why FIFA require an additional pass when we’ve had to jump through hoops to get our main accreditation, I don’t know, but our chances of getting inside didn’t look good. Thankfully we found a supervisor who broke the rules (unheard of out here!) and let us in with a flea in our ear to go with the mosquitoes buzzing around.
We battled our way to the front where there were platforms for media and also some space to wander freely. The atmosphere was electric but the teams went in at half-time at 0-0. We wanted just one Russian goal as we knew the place would go ballistic.
I tried to get a signal to send some photos but 8,000 fans on their phones meant I had no chance. I was still on my laptop when the 2nd half kicked off and Russia scored two minutes after the break. The fans went wild and I scrambled to put a card back in my camera. By the time I’d done so, the best photos were gone. Another rookie error.
Thankfully Russia scored another two times and I managed to get some photos I’m really pleased with. At full time, the fans partied as a DJ played well into the night. The fans were great and well-natured throughout. It was fantastic to experience some of the World Cup outside the walls of a stadium.