Visa sorted, documents filed, lenses checked, cameras cleaned, bags packed.
On Wednesday evening, I prepared to leave the house to join up with colleagues Matt & Robbie (and, later, Chris) ahead of my trip to Russia for this year’s FIFA Confederations Cup.
Having covered a number of tournaments over the last few years, I’ve become accustomed to the requirements of such trips. However, what no one prepared me for was the emotional impact of leaving behind my family. OK, so it’s just for a few weeks…I’m not the slightest bit embarrassed to admit that on this occasion, it was one of the hardest goodbyes I’ve ever had to go through. I tried to gently explain to Oscar how I wouldn’t see him in the morning, but it fell on deaf ears as he nodded off to sleep, requesting one more cuddle in the process. At that moment, I discovered a new-found respect for the parents who do this far more often than I do – not just photographers who travel the world to cover global sports events, but engineers, workers and members of the armed forces whose jobs take them around the world for weeks, if not months or even years at a time.
There’s little point denying that I felt signficantly less excited ahead of this year’s ‘Confeds’ – my previous tournaments had taken place in South Africa and Brazil, two countries I’d always wanted to visit, full of colour, flare and happiness; the idea of travelling to Russia for 3 weeks was far from comparable. There’s no doubt it’ll be a useful exercise though – getting to know the country ahead of next year’s FIFA World Cup will prove invaluable.
We departed Matt’s house in Shrewsbury at 04:30…my stomach was in knots following a questionable Thai takeaway that evening, so after little to no sleep, I managed to close my eyes for most of the journey down there. Arriving at Heathrow just a couple of hours later, we discovered the airport’s baggage belt system had broken down inside Terminal 5, so the check-in process suffered as a result. By the time we eventually got through security, there wasn’t enough time to have breakfast – we grabbed a quick snack from a shop and darted straight to Gate A6, from where our 09:20 British Airways flight to Saint Petersburg departed a short while later.
When we arrived in Russia, the dedicated channel for FIFA-accrediated media enabled us to fly through passport control, and within minutes, we were in a taxi en route to our hotel in the city centre. We spent the afternoon finding our bearings – despite it being a large city, once we grasped where we were based, it seemed fairly easy to find our way around. We walked along the embankment, passing the Hermitage and Winter Palace before heading round past Alexander Column and back down towards the Church Of Our Saviour. A schedule for the following day would include collecting our accreditation – the first step on the way to photographing the main event.
Chris had burst through the door to my hotel room at 2am, fresh from his late flight in from Amsterdam. We chatted for an hour or so before nodding off, and promptly picked up where we left off during breakfast the next morning. Matt and Robbie joined us, as we made plans for the day. Collecting our accreditation was a priority – Adam, a colleague working for Empics, joined us at our hotel, before we headed off to the Zenit Arena (for this tournament, known as the Krestovsky Stadium) north west of the city centre.
Located on the western tip of Krestovsky Island, this giant, imposing stadium has attracted criticism for for both it’s cost, which came in at more than $1Bn, and the delay to it’s completion, more than 8 years beyond the original plan. We decided to take a taxi there which dropped us off at the entrance to the park through which we had to walk in order to get to the arena. A long tree-lined avenue lead us to the foot of the 70,000 capacity structure, and next to it, the Accreditation Centre, where we needed to collect our passes from. Security was about as tight as we’d expected – the x-ray machines for ourselves and our gear weren’t enough to stop the authorities feeling the need to give us the once-over themselves. It took long enough as it was…it’ll be interesting to see if they adopt a similar stance when 100 members of the media are waiting to come through. I guess if any country is going to, it will be the Russians.
Our journey back into the city was a shambolic one. The Media Shuttle Bus we’d taken took us to the wrong hotel, on the opposite side of town to where we needed to be. We then had to catch a cab to get back on track…I then jumped out a couple of miles short of our destination to go for a walk by myself before dinner, exploring some of the local sights and sounds ahead of tomorrow’s opening game between the hosts and New Zealand…
The next day, we returned to the stadium, this time via the city’s metro system, for the opening match of the tournament. Arriving with plenty of time to spare, we attended a Photographers’ Briefing presented to us by one of the leading FIFA Media Officials. More often than not, these briefings detail a lot of things we already know – where you can and can’t go, what you can and can’t do, timings etc. A short while later, the ticketing process began and we queued up to choose our positions. I convinced the officials to provide me with both a tribune and pitch pass, allowing me the freedom to enter the stands during the game as well as securing me a pitchside seat to shoot the action. I was happy to shoot the opening ceremony from the tribune, though pitch photographers were permitted to do this even without a tribune pass. However, without a tribune pass, pitch photographers wouldn’t be allowed to access the tribune during the game, which is where I’d been afforded a rare luxury.
The opening ceremony was an impressive spectacle of costumes and colour, unfortunately set against the backdrop of probably 40,000 empty seats. We managed to capture a few interesting pictures from the front of the top tier of the main stand, but the light cut harshly across the centre of the pitch, which made it difficult to get any wider pictures due to the difference in exposure.
At the end of the ceremony, we had to go back to the SMC while the ground workers quickly reset the pitch perimeter for the match. A short while later, with less than 40 minutes until kick-off, I took my seat pitchside. As the teams and managers emerged from the tunnel, the pre-match formalities included a a rousing speech from Russian President Vladimir Putin, positioned in the VIP seating alongside FIFA President Gianni Infantino and Brazilian legend Pele; the finale was greeted with huge cheers from the home supporters.
The match itself was a fairly turgid affair, though nothing worse than we’d expected, both teams showing us why they are where they are within the world’s footballing pyramid. I shot what I could, and managed to capture the tournament’s opening goal as the ball was bundled into the back of the net at the near post..
At half-time, I used the break in play as my opportunity to head up into the stands. By the time the players emerged for the 2nd half, I was in position to capture the overview I’d been hoping to. I hadn’t anticipated how much agro it would be trying to get back down to the pitch though…it ended up being the best part of a half-hour round trip for just a handful of pictures. It was worth it though…from a photography perspective, this is what this tournament is all about; setting the scene for next year’s FIFA World Cup.
At the end of the match, we got stuck into a swift edit before packing our bags and making our way back through the park to the metro station. It felt like a long walk on the way in, but on the way back, it felt twice as far. When we eventually got back to the hotel, we worked out it’d taken just as long to walk from the SMC to the metro station as it did to get from the metro station back to our hotel in the city.
It was 11pm, we’d eaten next to nothing all day, having managed to avoid most of what the SMC catering team had to offer. We’d hit the wall though and dinner was a must, so we headed back out towards the city centre to find something to eat. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before we came across a small Spanish-style restaurant that appeared to tick the boxes. It was just what we needed ahead of an early morning taxi back to the airport.
Chris ordered an Uber cab which picked us up around 8am. It was Sunday, but we weren’t sure what to expect with regards to Saint Petersburg traffic so we decided to err on the side of caution. We arrived with the best part of 3 hours to spare before our 12:05 flight to Moscow, and after a seamless transition through security (always a gamble) we found the perfect cafe to sit down for breakfast. Flying with plenty of hand luggage on British Aiways or even easyJet is par for the course, but you never know for sure how the 23kg ThinkTank bags are going to be welcomed by the overseas check-in staff. Fortunately, some minor negotiations allowed for an easy passage through…first hurdle overcome.
The flight to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport was a short one, not much more than an hour, and having discussed our options at the other end, we decided the airport shuttle train would be the easiest way to get from the airport into the city. Despite the long walk from baggage reclaim to the train station, it proved the most straightforward mode of transport out of there, and within half an hour, we’d arrived at Belorussky Station, just a stone’s throw from the Grand Hotel Belorusskaya, our home for the next 4 nights. Check-in was an arduous and frought process. The hotel denied our request for twin beds, despite us asking for them when we booked 6 months ago – half an hour’s arguing from Mr. Ashton did nothing to change their mind, so a cosy few sleeps lay ahead.
From the hotel, we walked across the road to the adjoining metro station, no more than 100 yards from the front door, and descended one of the largest escalators I’ve ever been on, deep down into the depths of Moscow’s underground. It was a hive of activity; people we rushing to and from every direction…it made rush hour on the circle line look like a stroll in the park. We found it almost impossible to understand the signage on the walls and ceilings too…coloured and numbered lines and station names did little to simplify the experience of travelling through this maze of ornate caverns. Fortunately, stickers on the floor came to our rescue, finally guiding us to the platform we needed in order to reach the Otkrytiye Arena, located outside the Spartak metro stop on the north-western side of the city.
What should’ve been a straightforward day had turned into a long, stressful rushed affair. By the time we reached the stadium, there was little time to do any pictures outside other than a handful of quick views on the way in…I should’ve been soaking up the colourful Chile fans in their red, white and blue, but instead I was setting up caption templates, queuing for match tickets and just about keeping down more of the cuisine available from the SMC cafe. It wasn’t what we’d had in mind. We left the hotel at 08:00, for an hour-long midday flight, and had yet not managed to reach the stadium before 17:30. Things went from bad to worse when Matt tried to check-in online for our next morning’s flight to Sochi, only to find our chosen flight had been cancelled. No prior warning, no reason…just cancelled. We’d been bumped off onto another plane, one which took off 6 hours later and would result in us missing our next game between Australia and Germany. It was a stroke of luck that he even noticed, but as a consequence, found himself on the phone to various agents for the next 45 minutes trying to find a way to remedy the situation. Worst case scenario, we’d find ourselves with no game to shoot and an extra day in Moscow, but ideally, the plan was to find an alternative flight for us. The agency realised it was a mistake, and the airline acknowledged it was an error on their part. With the evening’s match just half an hour from kick-off, there’s nothing more we (or Matt) could do than wait to hear back from them.
The stadium was barely half-full…it was actually quite embarassing. Chile’s star man, Arsenal striker Alexis Sanchez, was named as a substitute for the game, as the South American champions took on Cameroon in the Russian capital, leaving fellow hero Arturo Vidal to run operations. Sanchez had sustained an injury in training, which meant he wouldn’t be fit enough to play the full 90 minutes. I decided to choose a seat in order to cover Cameroon’s attack in the first half, banking on the assumption that he would make a second half appearance.
With plenty of room to work in, I shot a reasonably quiet first 45 minutes, before once again heading into the stands for an overview at the start of the second half. I’d found an extremely helpful FIFA Media Officer who gave me a tribune ticket from his pocket, enabling me access into the stands and the public areas in order to get the pictures I required. Sadly, by the time I’d managed to track him down and get up to the first floor, the deep evening sky had turned to black, which took the edge off what would’ve been a nice view of the stadium…
I wound my way back down to ground level, returning to me seat at the end of the pitch behind Cameroon’s goal. The second half proved far more busy, aided by Sanchez’s introduction on the 70th minute, which injected the momentum into Chile’s attack that they’d been lacking throughout the first half. His impact was noticeable almost instantly, and before long, a dinked cross from the left wing dropped on the head of teammate Arturo Vidal, who powered it home from 6 yards out…
My position tight into the goal allowed me to capture the goal just as I like to, just as I’ve been taught…scorer, goalkeeper, ball, goal…it had everything, it was a pleasing picture to have. Chile went on to win 2-0, with Eduardo Vargas scoring the second, killer goal…
We returned to our hotel that evening safe in the knowledge that, thankfully, the issue with our flights had been resolved. Aeroflot managed to move us onto the 08:55 departure, meaning we’d arrive in Sochi with plenty of time ahead of the 18:00 kick-off.
Another Uber cab pulled up outside our hotel shortly after 6am, and got us to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport in little over half an hour. Once again, Aeroflot’s check-in staff couldn’t have been more accommodating if they’d tried…we breezed through security with just our ThinkTank bags to carry on and sat down for a light bite to eat before boarding. I say light bite…one of our party decided a roast chicken and Caesar salad would be more appropriate.
A few hours later, we landed in a warm, but overcast Sochi, where another helpful volunteer found a taxi to take us a few miles down the road to the Olympic Park, home of the 2014 Winter Olympics, the Russian F1 circuit, and most importantly, the Fisht Stadium. We weren’t allowed beyond the security cordon without a parking pass, so our driver dropped us off as close as he could and left us to walk the remainder of the way. We practically circumnavigated the entire stadium before eventually arriving at the nondescript entrance to the SMC.
I managed to catch up on a lot admin and editing, but the hours flew by, and before we knew it, kick-off was fast-approaching. There was an all-time lack of photographers presnt at the game…perhaps no more than 35, in addition to the agency staff whose seats had been pre-assigned. Obtaining a ticket was not important for any reason other than to gain access to the pitch – positions were available wherever we wanted them. Covering Germany’s attack for the whole match seemed a no-brainer – despite the lack of experience in their side, they were still clear favourites ahead of Australia, and picking up stock pictures of the world champions’ up and coming stars was important anyway.
They dominated the match from start to finish…the final 3-2 victory flattered the Aussies, who had little to offer in comparison to the typical discipline and decisiveness of the Germans…
After the match, we returned to the sparsely-populated SMC for a full edit – with no hotel and an 03:30 return flight to Moscow ahead of us, we made as much use of the facilities as we could, only leaving at 11pm when they closed up for the night. It was raining outside, but by some stroke of luck, we managed to hail a cab that took us straight back to the airport. Bearing in mind that it was a good 3 hours after the final whistle and we were on the Olympic Park, on an internal road away from public any public highways, we thanked ourselves fortunate to find such an easy way out. The domestic terminal was eerily quiet – every airport we’ve entered so far has required us to pass through x-ray machines before accessing the public areas, and this was no different. At 30 minutes to midnight, though, it was a far more relaxing process. We headed through into the main concourse and made a beeline for a cafe restaurant laden with comfortable armchairs and plush leather sofas…our base for the next 2 hours.
It had already been a long day, and I, for one, was beginning to fade. Chris drank his own bodyweight in tea before we made our way to the departure lounge a couple of hours later and onto the plane. Take-off was a bumpy one…as a teenager, I’d developed into quite a nervous flyer, but in the last 5-10 years, I’ve become far more accustomed to the bumps and jolts associated with a turbulent flight. This, however, was too much for me to sleep on…as tired as I was, I didn’t manage to close my eyes for the first hour of the journey, and by the time we’d come into land back in Moscow, I’m not sure I’d had more than 20 minutes’ sleep. We followed up our arrival with a brisk march through the airport to the shuttle train which, once again, transported us bang on time into the heart of the city. The walk to the hotel took less than 5 minutes, and by 7am, we were tucked up in bed to recharge.
I was out like a light. No thought for breakfast, no thought for sightseeing. I woke up at 2pm…I needed that sleep. I spent the next couple of hours catching up with my work, before heading into Moscow that evening for dinner. We took the metro 3 stops down the green line to Ohotny Ryad, stepping off just a few hundred yards from Red Square. This wasn’t the right time to explore, but the glimpse I had was enough to whet the appetite…I can’t wait to go back and have a proper look around. For now, it was time to eat…I’d had nothing since midnight the previous night, my body clock was all over the place, we needed to find somewhere and find it quickly.
By the time we’d eaten, a good night’s sleep was all I could see ahead of me. Russia’s second match of the tournament, against European champions Portugal, was up next for us in the capital.
After a refreshing day off, we returned to Moscow’s impressive Otkrytiye Arena to see the hosts take on Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal. The prospect of breakfast at the hotel didn’t fill me with much excitement, so I was fairly peckish by the time we arrived at Spartak’s stadium. Chris and I dropped in to the Accreditation Centre to collect a couple of transport passes that gave us free public transport throughout the city for the duration of the tournament, and then I managed to find time for a chat with the boss, Mark Leech, who was holed up in Offside’s HQ in Islington…as temperatures continued to soar back home, Leechie’s fan was being given a good workout, whilst we were left dodging intermittent rain showers in the Russian capital.
Though there were more photographers at this game then there had been at any previous matches we’d covered, there was still enough space on the end of the pitch to cover Portugal’s attack for the entire 90 minutes, which I planned to do. Cristiano Ronaldo was clearly the focus of everyone’s attention, as he always is, so I thought it would be foolish to consider any other option. The game was a poor spectacle…the fans were few and far between, and the game itself had little to offer in terms of action pictures. The sun was in and out, the light was up and down…it really was difficult to keep on top of things. I came away with plenty of stock pictures, but not a lot else. It wasn’t my finest hour (and a half)…
Portugal emerged 1-0 winners, thanks to a header from their talismanic captain. The European champions looked solid – each and every photographer is hoping they can go all the way.