This is it. It’s the business end of the tournament. We’d booked free FIFA trains and accommodation for both of the potential routes for England, depending on where they’d finish in their group. Thankfully, England finished 2nd in their group which gave them - and us - a much easier knockout stage. After a few hotel cancellations on booking.com, we were set for a short trip from Saint Petersburg to Moscow to photograph two Round of 16 matches: Spain v Russia and England v Colombia.
First up were the hosts at the Luzhniki Stadium. Russia had done brilliantly well to get to the stage but most people, including us, expected their World Cup journey to end against a Spanish team which won the tournament two editions ago.
Spain scored after 12 minutes thanks to a shambolic Russian own goal. I was blocked for the goal and the celebration ran completely away from me. I hadn’t really captured the moment at all and it looked as though the match was following its expected outcome until Russia were awarded a 41st-minute penalty, thanks to a Gerard Pique handball, which they duly converted.
Russia, buoyed by the 80,000 home fans in attendance, held on throughout the second half and then extra time, to take the match to penalties. Spain were the better team by far, but Russia had defended resolutely and deserved their chance from 12 yards.
It was the first penalty shoot-out of the tournament and it ended up being great practice for the England match a couple of days later. I opted to stay in my position down the side, roughly in line with the penalty area, and concentrate on photographing the goalkeepers, rather than the penalty takers. The goalkeepers are often the story of a shootout and a great flying save makes for a better photo than ‘man kicks ball’.
Russia won the shootout after goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev saved Spain’s 3rd and 5th penalty. The noise when Akinfeev made the second save to win the match was incredible. I’ve been lucky enough to work at some huge occasions: FA Cup finals at Wembley, a Champions League final at the San Siro, etc. but I’ve never heard a noise as loud as the cheer when Russia progressed. It was fantastic to experience it in person and great to see Russia progress, especially at the expense of one of the favourites.
We arrived back at our hotel after the match where we made friends with a Chilean – who, naturally, lived in New York and was out here supporting Argentina – and enjoyed a few beers while watching extra-time and penalties in the Croatia v Denmark match, at the small outdoor bar attached. After the match, we were both starving so we walked to a kebab place around the corner which, frankly, we didn’t hold out much hope for. Instead, we were very pleasantly surprised as we ordered a fantastic chicken kebab and also bought a couple more beers to take back to our room. Michelin star food, it was not, but it was delicious and just what we needed.
The next day we shot the England and Colombia MD-1 press conferences and Colombia training at the other Moscow stadium, the Spartak Stadium.
It was a fairly uneventful affair with the usual headshots and training photos taken. Colombia’s main man, James Rodriguez, sat out of the session so we focussed on him as well as ex-Chelsea and Manchester United striker Radamel Falcao.
We joined up with our Chilean friend again back at the hotel and enjoyed Belgium’s enthralling 3-2 win against Japan. The Azerbaijani bar owner, however, was less pleased. He’d placed a substantial bet on Japan to win and watched on as Belgium came from 2-0 down to win. I did suggest he cash out at 2-0 but I think it got lost in translation.
Another chicken kebab later and we were ready for sleep and an early wake-up call to get to England’s first World Cup knockout match in 8 years.
We arrived at the media centre at 9.30am the next morning, ready to get our priority position for the big match. Once again, it meant we were at the ground nearly 12 hours before kick-off but we wanted to ensure we got prime positions. I made another friend, this time Colombian, who agreed to swap positions with me so we would both cover our home teams for the entire match. We both secured positions on the manager’s side of the pitch, which considering there were only 5 positions available, was no mean feat.
We dumped out kits in the lockers and took the Metro into the city centre in search of England fans. We arrived in Red Square and could clearly see that the Colombian fans were going to outnumber the English 10-1. We did find a few fans though so we asked them to pose in front of the famous St. Basil’s Cathedral. As we were leaving we bumped into two English fans we’d met before and chatted with them for 10 minutes about their time in Russia.
Like ours, their experience has been solely positive. None of the problems or concerns before the tournament have come to fruition. The country has been safe, welcoming, friendly and the tournament has been well run. You could argue it’s one big PR exercise for the country but even so, I have nothing but positive things to say about this vast land.
After a short trip to the ‘Punch & Judy Pub’ which we hoped would be full of English fans (there were maybe 10 fans and a couple of flags – not quite what we’d hoped for), we headed back to the stadium to get prepared for the match.
Before long, kick-off came around. England played well but Colombia seemed out to kick England off the pitch. I may be biased but I thought they were one of the dirtiest teams I’ve seen play.
Eventually, England were awarded a deserved penalty 10 minutes into the second half. The assistant referee decided to place himself directly between me and Harry Kane which meant I was completely blocked. We’re not allowed to move during the matches but I wasn’t going to miss a massive England goal in a World Cup knockout match so I stood up and moved a few feet to my right so I wasn’t blocked.
Immediately two stewards started to shout at me and demanded that I sat down, despite me explaining why I was stood up and that I wasn’t going to move any further. The Colombian players argued with the referee for a few minutes as they tried to put Kane off, and the situation was mirrored behind the goal as I clashed with the stewards. Eventually, they saw a little sense and agreed to let me stay there for 30 seconds while the penalty was taken.
Kane dispatched the penalty and then ran away to the other side of the goal. The celebration looked nice and all I had to show for the penalty was two frames of Kane taking the penalty and almost nothing of the shenanigans beforehand due to the stewards. I understand they have rules and they’ve been given a job to do but over here they stick to the rules rigidly and do not apply common sense when it’s needed.
As the match went on it looked like England were going to progress despite the Colombian antics. Then, in the 93rd minute, the South Americans won a corner which was headed into the back of the England net, via a deflection from Kieran Trippier. The Colombians celebrated like crazy as a few choice words were spoken by the English photographers, myself included.
I hadn’t discussed with my Colombian position-swapper what we would do if it went to extra-time and I could see he hadn’t moved so I spent the first half of extra-time photographing Colombia attack. As it happened, this wasn’t a bad thing as England barely got out of their half of the pitch. The late goal had rattled them and they needed to get back on top.
The whistle blew for half-time with the score thankfully still 1-1. England’s best hope of winning seemed to be penalties. They just didn’t look like scoring. England rallied a little in the 2nd half and missed a couple of golden opportunities but before long, the inevitable England tournament penalty shootout was upon us.
The photographers all trained their lenses on the referee and waited to see which way he would gesture, indicating where the penalties were going to be. Of course, they were the opposite end. I had a mad rush to get behind the opposite goal. This time I decided to focus more on the penalty takers so that I would be in a prime position for the celebrations if England were to win.
Jordan Henderson was the first to crack under the pressure. My heart sank. Yet again, it seemed, England were going to go out on penalties. However, Jordan Pickford saved the next two Colombian penalties, while Trippier converted, to set Eric Dier up with the chance to send us through to the next round. I decided to quickly shoot Dier’s penalty on the shorter 70-200 lens, and then swap to the players on the 400mm immediately, without waiting for Dier’s reaction or to check if he had scored. I shot the penalty, switched to the 400mm as planned, and I was over-the-moon to see the 9 other England players running towards me in jubilation - confirming that Dier had successfully converted. I’d just photographed England win a World Cup penalty shootout.
The celebrations continued and the players piled on top of Jordan Pickford. After they had finished I noticed Harry Kane punching the floor on his own and screaming in delight so I rattled off a load of photos, then hot-footed it back to the side at the other end of the stadium where the players’ wives and girlfriends were in the crowd, as I expected the players would head to them and celebrate. Many of the players duly obliged. I fired off a load more frames as Southgate and Dier embraced in the middle of the pitch. I then ran to the end of the stadium where the England fans were and waited for the expected Southgate roar.
As the players walked off I ran to my laptop to send some photos. I’ve not had the luxury of a remote editor so I had barely sent anything and still had both goals on my memory cards as well as the shootout and post-match stuff. I had to be quick so selected the best 15 frames or so, edited them and sent them out. I then grabbed my wide angle lens and headed back to the ‘WAGs’ as the players were now back out and celebrating with their families.
For once, the photographers were giving the players space and all was very amicable until Harry Kane jumped over the barrier to greet his brother and Dad. The usual scramble ensued but my sharpened elbows ensured I had a good spot as Kane celebrated with fans and his family.
One other photographer was not so lucky and ended up losing half a tooth after someone accidentally smashed the photographer’s camera into their mouth in the melee. I hate to imagine what it will be like at the final if England make it.