As you round a corner on the road from Samara Airport into town, there on the near horizon is the Samara Arena. Impressive from a distance and up close, it sort of looks like a gigantic metal Champions League ball, cut in half, with a perfectly circular hole sliced in the top.
From that distance, it also vaguely resembles a Bond villain’s secret lair, set in the middle of some lush foliage, the hole in the roof looking more like where the long-range missiles would shoot from, rather than just the opening of a football stadium.
The other thing it looks like is a marooned spaceship, which is probably just as well because that’s (sort of) what it’s supposed to look like. The stranded UFO-style design of the Samara Arena - which, when free from the yoke of FIFA’s marketing restrictions, will be known as the Cosmos Arena - was inspired by the local area’s history in space exploration.
The rocket that carried Yuri Gagarin beyond the earth’s orbit was built in Samara (then known as Kuybyshev), and as it’s slightly impractical to have a football stadium in the shape of a rocket, something ‘inspired’ by space travel sufficed.
Wander around the place and you’ll see assorted monuments to is astronautical past, including what looks like a full-size replica of the Gagarin rocket, standing as if a statue near the town centre.
That town centre is a slightly odd mixture. Parts look like an ageing, slightly neglected industrial town, a place that has seen better days and, if it was in England, would be the subject of at least one article in the Guardian, a mystified journalist up from the big city, wondering why everyone here was so cross.
But then parts are genuinely quite beautiful, as many coastal towns tend to be. Samara isn’t technically a coastal town, but it is on the banks of the Volga, a river so vast that it may as well be the sea when you’re looking out on it.
In short, if you head towards the banks of the river, you’re likely to find a pleasant walk and a scenic spot for a drink. If you head further into town, near the train station, you’re more likely to shuffle around a series of buildings that look like long-abandoned factories. Fine if it’s 1978 and you’re shooting a Joy Division video, but less ideal for a rejuvenating trip away.
Whether the city’s inhabitants on the days in question make the place better or worse, depends on your point of view. When your intrepid correspondent was in town, Samara was crawling with Australians: not unreasonable or unexpected, given Australia were playing Denmark that day.
The Aussies have been one of the more notable sets of fans in Russia, purely because there have been so many of them, more or less wherever you look.
And the city centre, then later the spaceship/Bond lair/Champions League ball stadium, was awash with gold, a collection of people very keen to let you know exactly where they’re from. Possibly because the locals might think they’re English, otherwise.
Australian football fans, broadly speaking, seem slightly less boorish than ones you might find at a cricket match. Perhaps this is a false impression, but they appear to be there to watch the sport, rather than get entirely leathered while sport happens in the background. It all creates an atmosphere of positivity and optimism, fairly standard for a country used to winning at sport.
Alas, despite their pre-game enthusiasm - which featured the amusing scene of a big, cartoonishly Aussie bloke trying to explain to a baffled Russian journalist what a kangaroo was - the Australian fans shuffled off after the final whistle, rather underwhelmed.
The 1-1 draw they got with Denmark is neither the end of the world nor the end of their qualification hopes. But it does give them a big kick in the pants, requiring favours in the final group games to progress.
Four more games are scheduled in this spaceship, a terrific ground that is big enough to feel worthy of the World Cup, but tight enough to create an atmosphere.
The hosts are in town on Monday, a game which before the tournament looked like it might be an apologetic slink out of the World Cup, but will now be something closer to a victory lap. In a low key way, Samara might be the perfect place for it.News Now - Sport News