Northern Ireland kicks off the World Cup qualifiers in the Czech Republic on Sunday. The prize is a trip to the finals tournament in Russia in 2018. The supporters' website, Our Wee country, asked me to explain why that'll be a great occasion and why Northern Ireland fans will be desperate to attend. This post was originally on OWC's Facebook page.
Last June, most of the country went Green and White Army crazy, as Northern Ireland experienced major championship football for the first time in 30 years. It was a strange experience for long term fans who followed the team through thick and thin, regardless of success. If you thought the hype around the Euros was something special, though, it will be ten times greater if we qualify for the World Cup.
That’s a big incentive for supporters and, more importantly, for the players. Don’t listen to the doubters. Russia will stage a brilliant competition and no expense will be spared making sure visitors have a great time during summer 2018.
Bribery, hooliganism and Putin; the picture the media paints of Russia and its World Cup bid is bleak, but it is also biased and it draws upon the west’s political rivalry with Moscow and England’s hurt at not hosting the finals. Actually, there will never be a better time to visit the world’s biggest, most fascinating country. The President mightn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but he’ll make sure that this showpiece event goes smoothly.
Usually, securing a visa is the biggest inconvenience when you visit Russia. Getting the paperwork, including a letter of invitation from a hotel, can cost over £100 and it now involves a trip to Edinburgh or London, where they collect ‘biometric data’. In 2018, all fans will enjoy visa-free travel to Russia for the duration of the finals. That’s a big saving for a start.
Critics cite the distance between venues in Russia as a big problem. This issue is exaggerated, because the cities are ‘clustered’ to cut travel times, but the clincher is another freebie the Russians offered as part of their World Cup bid. Ticket holding fans will be entitled to free travel between match venues, in summer 2018. In Russia that usually means an overnight train, which is an experience to remember and saves on accommodation. If you caught the ‘party train’ between Kiev and Donetsk, for the Ukraine game back in the day, you’ll know what to expect.
Then there’s food and drink prices. Admittedly, if you want to hobnob with oligarchs and supermodels in Moscow or St Petersburg, these can be high. Luckily, even in the big cities, the cost of beer is cheaper than back home, if you stick to normal bars, chain restaurants and kiosks. Try Kruzhka or Yolki Polki, for cheap food and drink. And, if you like vodka, Russia can easily wear out your liver in a month. You can get half a litre of the stuff for about £2, in any Russian supermarket.
Many Northern Ireland fans know already that Russia makes a great trip. We played in Moscow in 2012 and most supporters had a blast. Our group set up its ‘local’ in a brilliant little bar just off Arbat (the capital’s main tourist street), after a week and a half visiting Kazan and Nizhny Novgorod (both World Cup venue cities). It’s just a pity about the result, but then, that’s often the problem on Northern Ireland away trips.
The Russians will keep the hooligan threat under control, because they intend to use the competition to show off their country. Already, plush new stadiums are opening ahead of the finals. Russia also contains some of the world’s best tourist attractions, if you like a little sightseeing with your football. Red Square and the Kremlin, the Hermitage museum, and the site of the Battle of Stalingrad are all in host cities.
It’s no exaggeration to say 2018 could be one of the best World Cups ever. Let’s hope Northern Ireland qualifies.