Kaliningrad, Nizhny Novgorod and Rostov-on-Don will host matches of the Croatian national football team during the World Championship
“Warm Slavic soul, kvas and vodka will greet your fans,” many Russians have said to me recently while speaking to them in Moscow about the draw, Russian football and expectations. And great respect too, Russians and Croats have been friendly nations and allies since the Second World War, something greatly respected in the Russian Federation and never forgotten. Newspapers say the same. They don’t ponder other nations too much, but mostly themselves, glorifying Group A they share with Uruguay, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Although surprises are possible at the World Championship, none are expected in that group, so the Russian sports audience is exceptionally pleased. The respected Sport Ekspress newspaper printed a graphic representation of all groups on the front page, but also an admission that their team is not a favourite, but will root for it with all their hearts. They cite as main favourites Germany, Brazil, France, Spain and Argentina.
Judging by the announcements of Russian diplomacy, Croatian fans will enjoy a no-visa regime for one of the strictest visa-issuing countries in the world. How will it all function, no one knows, but will soon be presented.
And Croatian fans are in quite some luck, not having to travel thousands and thousands of kilometres to matches. Kaliningrad is close to Poland and Lithuania, Nizhny is three hours by train from Moscow, and Rostov-on-Don is a bit further southwest. The most incredible and likeable of the three is Kaliningrad. Geographically distant from Russia (1.258 kilometres from Moscow), set on the Baltic Sea, surrounded by Lithuania and Poland and closer to many European capitals than Moscow. Mail to Croatia and the rest of Europe travels for months, but no one is upset over this, people smile, seem more cheerful than Moscow residents, and costs of life are significantly lower than in the Russian capital. And there is entertainment for everyone, warm kisses by Russian women for the male fans, and the female fans can mingle with thousands of sailors as Kaliningrad is the main port of the Baltic Navy. This is the atmosphere, while the proximity of the Baltic adds a special charm, especially on field trips to the nearby Zelenogradsk and Svetlogorsk in search of amber, a mineral with magical powers? If you happen to be in Kaliningrad, it would be a sin no to visit the Baltic, swim with swans and enjoy kvas and vodka. Kvas is a traditional Eastern European beverage made from fermented bread, which has a very low alcohol content, sold from cisterns on the streets in summertime, especially healthy for those troubled by the liver, gastritis and high blood pressure.
All the way up to 1945 Kaliningrad was known as Kenigsberg and was the capital of Prussia, renamed to honour Mihail Ivanovič Kalinin, a Bolshevik revolutionary. Once a German town, it soon became Soviet, still holding a high geopolitical importance for Russia, with many calling it Putin’s Trojan horse located in the heart of the NATO alliance. In any case, any place in Russia is cheaper than Moscow, from food to lodging. Including Nizhny Novgorod, only three hours away from Moscow by fast train. The city has a subway, is exceptionally wide and located at the delta of the Oke River into the Volga. It has a million residents and is a university centre, fifth in size, known as Gorki from 1932 to 1990 after the Soviet poet Maksim Gorki who was born there. It is a large transport hub, with the famous Trans-Siberian railway passing through it towards Vladivostok or through Mongolia to Beijing. Croatian fans will be especially happy to learn that Gorki was a closed city until 1991, with special entrance permits issued.
People are especially curious here, even a bit suspicious, but this is not a reason for fans not to like it. Hospitality is omnipresent due to the aforementioned Slavic soul. The stadium in Nizhny can hold 45.000 people and will be complete by January of next year, with various accidents and a fire during its construction.
Croatia will play against Iceland in Rostov-on-Don, a town of stone coal mines, somewhat smaller than Nizhny. This industrial town developed rapidly into a transport hub of southern Russian, but also a town increasingly feeding the rest of Russia due to fertile fields and favourable climate.
In any case, fans can plan trips, buy tickets, jerseys, scarfs and so on. The World Championship in Russia is not to be missed, if your finances allow for such adventures.
Let the games begin!