“Jesus! Sixteen hours without food! This is outrageous!”
The 17:48 overnight sleeper train from Moscow to England’s World Cup host city Samara, is a throwback to times gone by. Hastily thrown together to meet the unprecedented passenger numbers, its jaded rolling stock shudders, and swings violently from side to side.
And there is no restaurant car. This, the holy grail of the Russian train, is typically the gathering point for every stratum of the travelling public. It is here that the bankers and lawyers migrate from the first-class carriages, and the students and worker from the third — to eat and, more usually, to drink the night away.
But there is no first class, no third class, and not even any beer for sale on this train. And Callum D., an England fan from the first carriage — he asked other details be kept private, lest his employers find out where he really is — isn’t at all happy
“We landed at 4 am in Moscow and I haven’t eaten since then,” he says. “They promised us we could get food on the train. This isn’t on”
Three hours in and a 10 minute stop in Ryazan provides an opportunity. Callum D. can be seen at the front of a platoon of famished passengers, all sprinting frantically along the platform towards the kiosks around the station vestibule. Callum returns nine minutes later with two bags filled with pot noodles and beer. The train leaves at 9.25 sharp.
It would be a miracle if no passengers were left behind, says Marina T., a twenty-something-year-old and one of the dozen train staff on board. (She asked for her surname to be withheld).
“The job depends so much on the passengers,” she says. “When you have good people who do what they are told, it’s a doddle. The worst thing is when people get drunk, and start swearing at you. You aren’t allowed to answer back, and you just have to swallow it up.”
Marina is originally from Altai region, in Russia’s Far-East, but lives in railway digs near the Kazan station. Most of the hundreds of thousands of people who work on the Russian railway network are like her, she says. Muscovites are used to higher wages. But the money was enough for her, and recently, there have been perks. She’s been able to practise her limited English with the foreigners. She likes it when people seem interested in her life.
Our conversation comes to a halt when the inner carriage doors burst open. They reveal two men up to no good in the exposed platform between the carriages.
“Stop it right now!” she shouts. “If you keep smoking, I’ll ask the police to arrest you!”
The men snigger, take one last puff and throw the cigarettes onto the tracks below.
In the hallway of carriage three, businessman Ruslan Popov, 43 is reading a copy of the new testament. He had travelled down from Tver, 100 miles north of Moscow, with wife Anna, 28, especially for the match. He white Union Jack T-shirt tells the carriage everything it needs to know about his new, adopted team.
The couple says they had decided to support the English for a simple reason: The English are “less perverted” than the Swedes. No, they didn’t like the Swedes at all. They were “much too free in their morals.” They had same-sex marriage.
They seem surprised to discover Britain has them too.
“Damn,” says Ruslan. “Bad luck.”
There are only two Englishmen in carriage four, but their voices project far beyond the heavy grey iron door that leads to the sleeping quarters. Nicholas, 31, surname withheld, and Jamie Stevens, 21, are from Liverpool, and they live in the shadow of Anfield stadium. It is their first time in Russia and their very first experience of a Russian train. It wasn’t awful, and certainly cheaper than “rip-off” Virgin Trains.
But they had expected a bar of some sorts. They pace up and down the carriage, with frustrated faces, asking fellow passengers about the possibility of buying beer.
“I wasn’t going to come to Russia,” says Nicholas. “But my mate said it was sound and that everything the press wrote was a loada crap.”
He wasn’t impressed by the reports of a second Novichok poisoning, which was “probably” an attempt to undermine Russia: “I wouldn’t put it past our lot. Why would Russia poison them? If they wanted to, they’d do it the proper way. Not with some daft gas, or whatever the f**k that was.”
Jamie said he didn’t know what to think. He didn’t know much about politics.
“I’m a bit older than Jamie,” said Nicholas, reassuringly. “Maybe I’m wiser too, haha, but that doesn’t stop me believing that England will do it tomorrow.”
The third compartment of carriage five is a den of West Brom support. Three of the four bunks belong to the West Midlands: father and son John and Chris Stopp, 46 and 24, and friend Matt Gough, 24. The lone Russian traveller in the compartment sheepishly removes himself to the hallway on hearing the sound of English.
The West Brom fans say they have been shocked to discover free-flowing football.
“Following England has been like watching Brazil for us,” says IT specialist Gough. “The way West Brom play you can feel deflated when you win. Eleven guys behind the ball and it’s defence, defence, defence. It’s just embarrassing. Here there has been a pressure for teams to play good football.”
As we travel, news breaks of Belgium’s first, then the second goal against favourites, who would be out of the tournament before the evening is out.
“There you go,” says John Stopp. “This is exactly why this World Cup has been so great — the unpredictability, the sheer entertainment value. The Russian supporters want you to play. They whistle at teams they think are just passing the ball around at the back. It has been a tournament of real football.’
FA official Laurence Jones, 59, who is travelling in carriage number six, agrees wholeheartedly. And in his view, the England team has been at the head of that footballing curve.
“It’s been a really, really positive experience for the English and we weren’t expecting so much so early,” he says. “But whatever happens tomorrow, we have a fantastic manager and a golden generation of players that at a minimum will go into the Euro championships in 2 years with huge confidence.”
Key to the English success has been a focus on grassroots and player development, he says. Slowly, the national team is beginning to see the results of serious FA investment into youth clubs, local pitches and coaches. These were the “starting gun” of any professional player’s journey. It was simply “exhilarating” to see football being reborn in its native lands, he adds.
Jones is travelling to Russia despite a recent knee operation and a “leaky wound.” But, kitted out in the England red kit, he says would rather be nowhere else. The game will be tight, with Swedes being very defence-oriented. The odd goal will win it. But thereon-in, anything was possible.
“If we go on and win it, that would do wonders for our game, from the grassroots up.”
Many England supporters are starting to believe that may happen.
Rodney Billinge, 63, from Bakewell, Derbyshire, decided at 10.30 am Thursday morning that he must be in Russia, ready to witness “a historical moment.” One 6.30 am flight from Heathrow, connecting in Warsaw later, Rodney and son Daniel, 28, were on the rickety sleeper to Samara, not quite generous how they had made it.
“It’s a once in a lifetime experience,” says the softly-spoken father. “I may never see England in a quarterfinal again.”
Daniel is watching passing trees and slow-moving cargo trains from the train window.
“It’s totally different to back home,” he says. “No sheep, no cows — you’re just transported into the middle of the forest.”
Other passengers on the train were more experienced tree watchers. Adam Hoult, 33, Jamie Chapman, 39, and Ian Storey, 39, are primary school teachers based in Moscow’s international school. They had lived in Russia for many years, and were, they said “under no illusions” about the reality of political life here. But the tournament had finally given its people, rather than just its president, centre stage.
Given the violence in Marseilles in 2016, part of the worry was understandable, says Hoult. He was actually there that day and he saw how two Russians “jumped” an older England supporter. “He was a lovely guy, actually, and they beat him to near death, but our press probably overdid things.”
“What people failed to understand was that was a failure of policing in France,” says Storey. “The Russian police were never about to make that mistake.
Russia’s handling of the World Cup — often exceptional, occasionally terrible — will help everyone forget that day.
“Russia had an opportunity to show the world who they were, and they took it with both hands,” says Chapman. “People will go away and tell all their friends about how wonderful the place is.”
Proving the point is Chris Beyers, a 23-year-old England fan from Cape Town, South Africa. Tucked away in the final carriage of the train, he is wearing a Cheshire Cat grin above the three lions of England. Less than 48 hours on Russian soil has given him the “time of [his]life,” he said. “I was expecting a party, and I got the sickest experience.”
Helped by his oil executive father, Beyers had already spent the best part of $4000 on last-minute flights and amusement. But that wasn’t important. He knew it was worth it.
“Someone came to me while I was sleeping on Tuesday night,” he said. “They told me this was the time. They told me it’s coming home. I had to be here to see it happening.”