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Don't take me home?

Welcome to Kaliningrad, the World Cup town that now faces an uphill struggle

The warm, friendly locals have done their best to welcome football fans throughout the tournament, but what next for this peculiar Russian city?

It’s fair to say I probably won’t be booking my honeymoon to Kaliningrad.

That’s despite being put up in the marital suite in our hotel on our arrival to this peculiar Russian city, an annex which borders Lithuania, Poland and Belarus – but not the Russian mainland itself.

A slightly misjudged joke to the hotel receptionist about getting recently married to my colleague Rory filled me with instant regret given same-sex marriage is banned here, so we didn’t stay long before leaving to check out what the city had to offer.

The mood was upbeat amongst England and Belgium fans, with both sets of supporters knowing they were safely through to the next round of the World Cup, but the big question on everyone’s lips was: does anyone actually want to win this game?

England fans abroad and McDonald’s, a truly iconic duo

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England fans abroad and McDonald’s, a truly iconic duo

More English fans have been arriving as the tournament progresses, could we see a Moscow takeover?

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More English fans have been arriving as the tournament progresses, could we see a Moscow takeover?

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While fans’ opinions were split about whether or not they wanted to finish first in the group, there was certainly something everyone could get behind – drinking beer from as early as possible.

We arrived into the city at 8am, were warned over the tannoy at Khrabrovo Airport that ‘unlicensed taxis could result in death’ (as if any other taxi journey in this country so far has been safe…), and found the city centre to be full of English and Belgian boozers.

The saddest football pool pitch you’ll see in your life

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The saddest football pool pitch you’ll see in your life

It’s been great to see more and more England fans arrive into the country as the tournament progresses, and I’ve got a sense that Tuesday’s match against Colombia could see a Moscow takeover.

There were about 2,000 England fans in Volgograd, 4,000 or so in Nizhny Novgorod, and over 6,000 here in Kaliningrad – if winning the World Cup means clicking into a higher gear as the tournament progresses, it certainly feels like the fans are also taking on that policy.

The city itself is full of contradictions – a formerly German town swamped with brutalist Soviet architecture, that is now trying to show off its best to the rest of the world.

It’s hard to do that with some of the buildings here, as was the case at the FIFA fan fest, where a huge banner is draped around a 21-storey eyesore in an attempt to dress itself up.

Bleak house

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Bleak house

In reality, it looks as untidy as Marouane Fellaini attempting to do a rabona.

The stadium is another example of Kaliningrad’s struggle to keep up.

The brand new Arena Baltika finds itself in the middle of nowhere – a good 20 minutes from anything else in the city, situated in the middle of acres of fields that look more like the sort of places you used to go for a school sports day.

Believe it or not, this is 500 metres from the stadium

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Believe it or not, this is 500 metres from the stadium

 

As new stadiums go, there’s no bells or whistles either. It has a sterile, IKEA feel to it both inside and outside, and it made me a touch sad to know that after the World Cup ends, it will be in the hands of Russian second tier side Baltika Kaliningrad, who average just over 7,000 to each of their home games.

The game itself couldn’t have been more fitting for an experience like this – a dreary, bizarre match played out by the England and Belgium sides as both sets of fans started to whistle and jeer after just 20 minutes.

Not a stadium for Brendan Rodgers due to its lack of character

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Not a stadium for Brendan Rodgers due to its lack of character

Having spent most of my life watching third and fourth tier football, I’m used to some sub-par matches, but this is a World Cup, and while the result probably favours England, there was certainly a deflating sense amongst every fan as we made the long walk back into the city centre.

As we’ve experienced all around Russia, at least there’s the people. The Kaliningrad locals have been some of the warmest, friendliest and helpful people I’ve met in my time here, and they are bringing their A games to ensure a great experience for all visitors.

When all is said and done, there is always the fans to provide the entertainment

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When all is said and done, there is always the fans to provide the entertainment

These are the Russian Corrs, apparently

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These are the Russian Corrs, apparently

From a constant stream of music acts on the stretch down to the stadium to the joy of the faces seeing the England and Belgium fans belt out ‘Don’t take me home…’ for the 100th time in the main square, it makes you remember that for most people living here, they will never see anything like this ever again.