Today began with an early flight out of Moscow, as we returned to Kazan for the first of the two semi-finals. Portugal had been paired with Chile in what promised to be a fiery encounter between two of the biggest names in the tournament.
We landed at 10:30 and headed straight to the Hotel Crystal, where Chris and I were able to dump our bags and get a bit of shut-eye ahead of the long 24 hours we had in front of us.
We arrived at the Kazan Arena for the final time and headed straight to the photographers’ ticketing desk. I’d made the decision to shoot both semi-finals from the tribune, so my ticket was already waiting for me in a labelled envelope – no need to join the queue for a pitch seat. Very few photographers occupied the tribune positions for this game – despite the mouthwatering prospect of Portugal and Chile coming head-to-head – Ronaldo v Sanchez – most declined the opportunity to shoot the two of them from an alternative angle. I’d chosen a tribune position in order to shoot an overview of the stadium too, something I’d come to realise was very tricky without the right accreditation.
Canon and Nikon have been present throughout the tournament, for simple cleaning and checking services at each of the four SMCs, but on this occasion, they were on hand to loan equipment to photographers too. The widest lens I possess is a 14mm f/2.8 – a beautiful little lens that produces incredibly sharp pictures – but for the images I was looking for, I took advantage of Canon’s service and borrowed their super-wide 11-24mm f/2.8 lens. It’s a heavy beast with a price tag to match, designed with a bulbous, protuberant front element- something that often leads people to mistake it for a fisheye lens, despite it being a true, corrected lens…
It was perfect for what I needed…I’m just annoyed with myself for failing to borrow a second, longer telephoto to go with it. Agency photographers are the only ones allowed into the stadium ahead of match ticketing, usually to set up remote cameras and their pre-arranged cables etc., so I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of the tribune and how far it is from the pitch, and wouldn’t know until I got up there. When I got up to my position, around 45 minutes before kick-off, it quickly became apparent that my usual reach of 400mm would leave me quite a bit short – I didn’t want to use the 1.4x III extender either, because the floodlights weren’t strong enough to maintain the quality I wanted when using the extender which would reduce the light coming into the camera.
I made do with what I had, but it was far from ideal…
Unfortunately, the game failed to live up to expectations, and despite some strong action pictures, the scoreline remained 0-0 after full-time and extra-time, and so it came down to penalties. The unlikely hero of the night turned out to be a man who’d received nothing but harsh criticism all season on the domestic front – Manchester City’s Chilean goalkeeper Claudio Bravo. The experienced numero uno had clearly done his homework, saving each and every one of Portugal’s first three penalties to give his side victory. The narcissistic Cristiano Ronaldo didn’t even get to take his spot-kick, choosing to go last in the hope of scoring the decisive goal. It wasn’t to be.
There wasn’t much time to edit – we had an 03:50 flight to Sochi to catch, and having endured extra time and a penalty shoot-out, we had a much smaller window than we’d originally budgeted for. Hopping onto a crammed media shuttle bus outside the SMC, we convinced the driver to drop us close to the train station which was opposite the Hotel Crystal. Chris and I grabbed our bags, we booked an Uber cab, and before long we were on our way back down the road we’d travelled along just over 12 hours earlier.
The flight ahead of us included a 2-hour stopover in Moscow – we weren’t due to land in Sochi until 10am, but this meant that at least we could head to our hotel, drop our bags and get a couple of hours’ kip in before heading over to the Olympic Park for the second semi-final, between Germany and Mexico.
The weather in Kazan had been good, but it had nothing on Sochi – the warm air and mid-30s temperatures were just what we needed as the tournament finale crept ever closer; shorts and t-shirts were the order of the day. Our cab dropped us as close as he could to the side of the stadium where the SMC was located, although the extensive cordon put in place by the police meant we were still in a different postcode to where we needed to be. We eventually arrived at the ground 4pm, having been dropped off a good half an hour earlier. I had the best intentions of finding a location to get a strong external view of the stadium, but it was nigh on impossible – the best viewpoint was a few miles away down the beach, way beyond practical on a matchday. I got some work done inside the SMC, and managed to obtain another 11-24mm lens, as well as a 500mm telephoto too, from the good people at Canon. Mike Burnhill, Graham Smith, Claudio Biondi et al continue to provide photographers with an extremely useful service at this large events, and the gear they were able to loan me for this match really did make the difference to my shoot.
Once again, I’d decided to shoot from the tribune. It was perfect – there was plenty of space to work in, and the freedom to roam the entire main stand (as opposed to being restricted to our ‘area’) was a real bonus; it meant we could get all the pictures we needed without having to jump through hoops to obtain access.
The 500mm f/4 was ideal for shooting the match action. The lens is so incredibly light, and absolutely pin sharp too, it hardly missed a beat throughout the entire 90 minutes…
The Germans ran away with the match – their youngsters had no problems showing Mexico how it’s really done. This was good news for our small crew – it meant we could get back to the hotel and get our heads down by a reasonable hour. We walked for a good half an hour away from the stadium before we found a small cluster of taxis for hire. Unfortunately, we had little bargaining power because of where we were and how much baggage we had with us, so despite Matt’s principled refusal to accept the cost they were all quoting for the journey we needed, there was little alternative on offer. With a rest day on the Black Sea to follow, we begrudgingly packed the boot and made our way back to the Okhotnik Spa Hotel across the river from the Olympic Park in Adler, Sochi. Chris and I still had a little bit left in the tank, and having not eaten proerly all day, decided to try the small tapas bar that looked livelier than anywhere else nearby for a spot of dinner.Through the use of Google Translate, we managed to order a couple of traditional chicken kebabs and some local bread and sauces before returning to the hotel by 2am to sleep on it.
The following day didn’t get going until gone 11am, when the two of us were roused from our slumber by the jets taking off from the nearby airport, flying directly over the hotel. Looking out from the balcony, you could see the giant shadow of an Airbus speeding across the water away from the shoreline, chased by the aircraft itself a couple of seconds behind. The beach was heaving with bodies – all shapes and sizes. There were plenty of children screaming and shouting as their parents pleaded for the chance to relax, but it didn’t ease up. Chris and I dragged ourselves out of the hotel for a bite to eat, passing by a stall on the way so he could pick up a pair of flip flops for the day.
The rest of the day was spent relaxing – there was nothing I needed more than to switch off. We’d had an epic 48 hours, and having made plans to meet up with some colleagues for dinner, I took the decision to do very, very little for the rest of the afternoon.
That evening, we journeyed across to the other side of Adler – it quickly became clear we’d drawn the short straw when it came to the location of our hotel. We’d booked it based on it’s proximity to the stadium and airport, but soon immediately wished we’d gone the other way. Still, that’s what this trip is for – we know for next year.
Our hotel had organised a cab for us – in truth, it was a friend of the receptionist who had a white transit van and a spare half hour, but it did the job. We met up with Reuters’ Sochi team – Carl, Kai, Darren and Grigory – for a fine night’s dining at La Luna Restaurant, in the heart of the Westernised part of Adler. Four bottles of vodka, a few beers, some gin and a whole host of tapas later, we headed back to their hotel for a nightcap, a 2-hour period which finished us all off.
Chris and Matt have their own stories to tell of the ensuing night’s antics – my head hit the pillow at 02:30, but fortunately it wasn’t spinning. With a morning flight back up to Saint Petersburg to look forward to, I’d be thankful for a comfortable night’s sleep and hangover-free awakening.
My alarm echoed around the shoe box-sized room at 9am. I wouldn’t say I sprung into life, but I felt a whole lot healthier than I thought I was going to. Chris was out for the count, KO’d in a corpse-like position on the other bed, so I started packing my bag together for the final internal flight. With 15 minutes until our taxi was due to arrive, I decided to wake Chris. We paid the bill and were on our way.
We landed at 3pm, with high hopes for an arrival at the hotel no later than 4pm. Things didn’t go so smoothly though – we found ourselves waiting more than an hour and a half for our luggage to turn up, by which time another two flights’ worth of people were gathered / huddled / crammed in around the conveyor belt in the arrivals hall. VIP football guests spotted today waiting patiently alongside us included Brazil coach Tite, former Arsenal midfielder Edu, and Liverpool legend Ronnie Whelan – something of a mixed bag. We booked a minivan cab and headed straight to the Solo Sokos Hotel Vasilievsky, just across the Blagoveshchenskiy bridge from the main part of town, on the northern side of the Neva River. We’d saved the best until last – with a gym and sauna, and a breakfast spread to rival any, this FIFA Media-listed hotel was just what we needed at the end of the tournament.
At every major tournament, FIFA provide details of a small selection of hotels that members of the media are able to book ahead of the public. These hotels are often located in a spot convenient for stadium or airport access…sometimes, both. They also then lay on free shuttle buses that take members of the media from the hotel straight to the stadium media centre – a handy option that takes the strain out of the process. The walk from the metro station or even the closest taxi drop-off point takes the best part of 20 minutes, right through the park that occupies the majority of Krestovsky Island, on which the stadium is built. The media shuttle isn’t always the easiest option, but for this stadium, there’s no doubt the positives outweigh the negatives.
We caught the 3pm bus from the hotel which dropped us off literally just around the corner from the SMC. An x-ray later and we were in. A far more civilised mode of transport, certainly for this particular venue. As time went by, so did the VIP guests – Russian pole vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva and model and Russia 2018 tournament ambassador Victoria Lopyreva both made appearances, much to the delight of the male contingent, in particular.
I’d been assigned a position in Priority Group 3 for the final – I’m not Chilean, German or Russian, but I still couldn’t understand being in Group 3 rather than Group 2. These are questions we continue to ask and questions we continue to find unanswered. Anyhow, I wouldn’t be able to choose my pitch position until 18:45, just half an hour before the start of the Closing Ceremony. I managed to secure a seat on the end of the pitch nonetheless; something which, under similar circumstances at the World Cup, would be impossible. Fortunately, the number of photographers at this tournament was much less than there will undoubtedly be next year.
First up was the closing ceremony. Having given the tribune a go for the opening ceremony a couple of weeks ago, I chose to shoot this one from ground level instead. The
presence of Brazilian legend Ronaldo – there to present the trophy – swung my decision…
As the performance came to a close, we were once again ushered out of the stadium and back to the SMC while the ground staff reconfigured the pitchside for the match. I filed a handful of pictures before grabbing the remaining pieces of gear I’d left in a locker, handing the key back to the volunteers and heading back out to the pitch. The stadium filled up quickly as excitement grew for the much-anticipated final between the tournament’s most in-form teams. The anthems played, the teams shook hands, the coin toss was performed, and the match got under way…
Germany took the lead with a tap-in after some calamitous defending from the Chileans, who spent the rest of the match piling on the pressure were simply unable to find an equaliser. The new Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system played – not for the first time – a controversial part in the game, as Germany managed to avoid a sending-off following what appeared to be a clear elbow from one of their players. Eventually, it was that goal alone that separated the two teams.
After the match, a small hint of colour remained in the Saint Petersburg sky, and the stadium was lit up with a blue glow. Inevitably, we missed the 00:30 bus back to the hotel, and had to wait for the next one which was at 02:15 instead. I made the most of this time and walked around the concourse to look for alternative views of the amazing stadium, illuminated against the deep, dark night sky…
The 02:15 bus was the last one of the night, and a consequence, it was extremely busy. We managed to squeeze on board; within 20 minutes we were walking back through the doors of the Solo Sokos Hotel Vasilievsky. It was 4am before I finally managed to shut my eyes – tomorrow’s line-in would be a welcome one.
I woke up later than usual – understandable after such a late night – but not too late that I would miss breakfast…I wasn’t going to let that happen. I chatted to Chris extensively about the photographic tours he runs in India and South America. He’s been shooting Pumas, Jaguars and Tigers, in particular, for close to 20 years now and always has a story to tell. The more we spoke, the more I felt like booking the next flight out – it’s definitely on the to-do list.
Chris packed his bags and left for the airport at 1pm along with a couple of Getty Images colleagues, a 24 hours before the rest of us. He was heading to Amsterdam for a few days’ R&R before heading back down to Brazil. Alright for some.
I reviewed the previous night’s work before heading into Saint Petersburg with Robbie for a bit of a walk, some lunch, and a spot of souvenir-hunting. My search for something
to take home didn’t go well – I ended up buying my 2 year-old an orange t-shirt with Vladimir Putin’s face on it (wearing aviator sunglasses) and the words ‘Mr. President’ written underneath…it made me chuckle, but I wasn’t entirely sure if it would go down too well at home! We found a nice spot for lunch, on the pavement in the sunshine, perfect for people-watching, and proceeded to spend the next three hours relaxing on the side of the city’s main avenue.
Matt returned from his trip to Canon Professional Services (CPS) and joined us for a staggered meal, before we made our way back to the hotel, arriving just as the heavens began to open. That was it for the night.
Our final day in Russia began with an early breakfast, before the arduous task of packing began. Our Uber cab arrived outside the hotel to collect us at 12:30, and before long we were feeding our luggage through the airport’s x-ray scanners for the penultimate time. The x-ray machines had played a big role throughout our trip – they seem to have been everywhere, from airport entrances to hotel lobbies and stadium gates. It would be nice to see the back of them, regardless of their good intent.
Our accreditation had also played it’s part, though it saved the best ’til last, allowing us the opportunity to use our own, empty channel through the airport entrance, and then check-in and even airport security. From the time we stepped foot outside the taxi, we were sitting down enjoying lunch within 20 minutes…not something we’re used to!
Reflecting on our time in Russia, it was clear there will be lots of work to be done next year. We can take plenty away from our trips to Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kazan and Sochi, safe in the knowledge that we know how best to get about, where best to stay, and where and where not to go. Logistically, World Cups are a nightmare, and not a lot can be done ahead of the draw, which doesn’t take place until December. Once that draw is made though, and we know who will be playing where and when, I feel we’ll be one step ahead and should be able to plan those six weeks with confidence.
Until then, there’s a bit of pre-season to look forward to!