Yekaterinburg is the most easterly venue at the World Cup, but to suggest it’s in actually in the east of Russia would…not be quite right.
A two-hour flight from Moscow, it’s about a third of the way across this unfathomably big country, far west enough so you don’t - and here’s a super-cool travel tip for you - require a completely different classification of travel insurance.
You’ll need to pay a slightly higher premium if you go beyond the Ural mountain range. Probably best not to think about why.
Its primary claim to fame outside Russia is that it was the place the Romanovs were executed, specifically on the site of what is now the Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints. It’s a spectacular building with a gold dome (they love a gold dome in Russia) but when that pretty intense name was suggested, hopefully someone said “Alright lads, keep it light.”
Still, in the gift shop you can commemorate the brutal slaying of the former royal family by buying a fridge magnet with their portrait on it. Which I did.
Some parts of the town are slightly reminiscent of east Berlin, particularly in the architecture, both good and bad, modern and old fashioned. Obviously, it’s less hipster, fewer coffee joints with reclaimed furniture and exposed brickwork, not quite as many lads who either have ludicrous facial hair or, ironically enough, look like a young Stalin.
It’s also the place with those absurd-looking temporary stands at either end of the Yekaterinburg Arena, which on the TV look like a rickety old rollercoaster, the sort of thing that looks like it should be instantly condemned and you’d never actually go near.
But actually - and probably unsurprisingly - up close it seems pretty stable. I even wandered up to it and gave one of the metal beams a little shove, in much the same way as someone’s dad might test the structural integrity of a freshly put together table and say “Solid, that. Not going anywhere.”
In town for the third of the four games here were Japan and Senegal, two of the tournament’s more enjoyable teams. Japan because they were one of the outfits who have been terrific despite the fact we were promised they were going to be a complete mess, having replaced their coach two months before travelling to Russia, the sort of move you only make if you’re desperate or misguided.
For them, it was the former, ex-boss Vahid Halilhodzic having been deemed too much of a risk, perhaps a shrewd move given he apparently once banned his players from smiling after a defeat.
And Senegal because, well, they’re Senegal, managed by the glorious Aliou Cisse, a cerebral man in immaculate suits who seems like the sort of bloke absolutely nobody would want to disappoint.
Even watching him walk through the mixed zone after the game, carrying a shopping bag from some elegant-looking boutique and stopping for a brief chat with an old acquaintance, he radiated an easy authority.
These were also two sets of fans who could have provided plenty of entertainment on their own, even if the game was terrible - which, happily enough, it wasn’t. Before kick-off a group of Senegal supporters in elaborate face paint shuffled nervously outside the gates, seemingly in quite intense discussion with security about something or other.
It later emerged they were negotiating being allowed to take in their drums, which they eventually were and in a stupendous display of stamina spent the entire game thumping gleefully.
The noise from Japan’s followers wasn’t as consistent, but it was just as loud, reaching a frantic pitch every time their boys advanced to within about 30 yards of goal.
If nothing else, it provided a handy warning for journalists, who by necessity often have to be staring at their screens rather than the field: you weren’t going to miss an incident with these guys in the stands.
One more game is to come in Ekaterinburg - Mexico against Sweden - after which they will dismantle those temporary stands, the artifice will come down and normal life will continue. Perhaps a rather apt physical representation of what hosting a World Cup is like, really.News Now - Sport News