England flew out to their training base in Repino ahead of their opening World Cup match against Tunisia on Monday.
Gareth Southgate’s side begin their Group G campaign in Volgograd, before travelling to Nizhny Novgorod to play Panama and Kaliningrad to face Belgium.
Russia is a gigantic place and these names may not be familiar to many. With a volatile political landscape providing the backdrop and possible trouble with hooligans and racism offering other concerns, some Three Lions fans flying out this week may be feeling apprehensive.
But perhaps they shouldn’t be. Football writer Andrew Flint has lived in Russia since 2010 and having taken in the build-up and visited eight of the 12 host cities, he’s feeling positive about the tournament.
History and culture
England’s group games see them cover 4,848 miles to and from their base near St Petersburg, but Flint believes the fans have struck lucky with the host cities.
“Volgograd is probably my favourite of the eight host cities I’ve visited,” he says. “Having previously been Stalingrad you can’t avoid the historical reminders and context. It’s an awe-inspiring place.”
Further up the Volga river, Nizhny Novgorod similarly has a lot to offer. “It has everything you could want and made a real impression on me,” Flint says.
“There are pedestrianised streets with street performers, posh hotels, cheap hostels and burger bars and the views are wonderful from the kremlin on the hillside with two big rivers converging beneath.”
Kaliningrad, situated in an enclave on the Baltic, is a harder sell, but has its appeal nonetheless. “The outskirts feature half-built Soviet buildings and graffiti, but the old centre has retained its German heritage and is lovely,” Flint says.
Following violence in Marseille sparked by groups of Russian ultras two years ago, much has been made of the potential for problems at the tournament.
However, Flint believes the problem has been overblown by tabloids and that political pressure and tight security should ensure a peaceful event.
“I can say with absolute certainty: the security will be the tightest people have seen at a major tournament,” he says. “Security in Russia as a whole, the police presence on the streets on an everyday basis, is absolutely watertight – some fans may even find it overbearing.”
All three stadiums where England play their group fixtures were built especially to a 45,000-seat specification for the tournament, were opened this year and will have measures to prevent known hooligans from entering.
“Everybody going into a stadium has to have a Fan ID, as well as a ticket,” Flint explains. “The firm leaders have been visited by the FSB and have been told they’ll go to prison if they get into any trouble. They won’t get into stadiums anyway because there is a blacklist.”
Another worry is racism. England left-back Danny Rose has advised his family not to travel to Russia, fearing they might be racially abused. Flint says attitudes are gradually changing in the country, but problems remain.
“Yes, there is racism in Russia, but any incidents will be stamped out like wildfire,” he says. “This is Vladimir Putin’s big chance to present Russia to the world.
“Politicians have used World Cups for political means for decades and he will not look kindly – to put it mildly – on anybody who disrupts that positive image.”
Spotlight on Russia
“Overall I think people will see the positive side of Russia,” Flint says. “But if there are negative incidents that’s still good in a way because Russian politicians will see a backlash and will have to act.
“There’s nothing like a World Cup to focus attention to the good and the bad sides. It might act as a wake-up call.”