Places of Tyumen: Geolog Stadium

“The Best Stadium in Siberia.”

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“The Best Stadium in Siberia” – Not a spurious claim

Some claim when you consider the scale of the vast abyss that dwarfs all other continents on earth, but aside from the obvious impossibility of objectively analysing and ranking all Russian stadia east of the Ural Mountains, I bet it’s not far off. One day I hope to take in as many of the competitors as possible – completing all of them would surely be a first – but for now I’m happy to make do with the magnificent Geolog Stadium.

15206_10101776817118029_6627663595509165702_nThat claim, by the way, was not made by me. Five years ago on a blazing summer’s day, 2,500 others joined me at the grand re-opening of the city’s premier football venue and read the words in the club’s own program. The design for one is revolutionary compared to the standard Soviet-era concrete bowls that merge into one another; the orange lattice outer layer on the main stands for starters is a striking mirror image of the Bird’s Nest in Beijing.

The facilities are almost certainly unmatched at clubs below the top flight in Russia. There is a huge on site fitness centre with a modern rehabilitation centre, a hotel, plush VIP seating area (those padded, heated seats are more of a necessity than a luxury in winter, trust me…), a full size all-weather training pitch with its own facilities that doubles up as the Regional Centre of Excellence. The capacity is over 13,000, which together with media facilites and the all-weather pitch make the ground conform to Premier League standards, which is more than can be said for newly-promoted Gazovik Orenburg (whose stadium only holds 4,500).

 

But the real reason why this is one of my favourite places in Tyumen is the experience on matchday. I don’t go in for winter biathlon (cross-country skiing and target shooting, for those who don’t know) so the Race of Champions, which draws crowds of 10,000 to the Geolog to see the world’s finest biathletes each year, doesn’t do anything for me. Watching the local side FC Tyumen play however introduces you to a whole new type of fan.

My wife Ekaterina joined me a few years ago for her first ever live football match, and we met one of the regular ‘characters’. I say met; the entire crowd experienced his drunken ramblings, although not much of what he said was intelligible. The quality on display that day was dubious at best – Sergey Volosyan, the rather limited winger, managed a complete airkick from a pass that travelled no  more than five yards – so the toothless octogenarian provided just as much entertainment.

10403655_10101539338901279_5027124652602690887_nLiterally everything he uttered was amplified by the relative silence of the rest of the spectators, and by the intensity of his apparent ire. It didn’t seem to matter which team had done something, good or bad, out bellowed some garbled growling garbage from his mouth. That it mattered so much to someone was a source of laughter for most, but I found myself drawn to his energy. OK, alcohol was probably speaking a little, but at least he was getting behind his local side, not passed out completely on the pavement.

Enough of drunken amusements, though. I have been lucky enough to get to know the press officer and marketting department, and have spent a few afternoons by the side of the pitch watching the first team train. Often the athletics track is dotted with members of the public jogging around, and there are regular youth tournaments in the summer. It is more than just a football stadium – public money funded it, and the public get to use it; just how it should be.

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What a night. Conveniently glossing over the extremely dubious goalkeeping from Zenit…

To have such a top-draw facility in my city makes me proud, as it is clear that the city government – who funded the renovation from a rickety wodden-benched bowl – are not content to make do with second best football. I will never forget the night when Zenit St Petersburg came to town in the Russian Cup, and the only full capacity crowd to date saw Tyumen, who were then in the third tier, win 2-0. Hopefully, it won’t be long before nights like those become more frequent.

Khasan Mamtov Player Watch

The world of Russian lower league football can be an unglamorous and unforgiving environment, but if you dig a bit deeper you can find some absolute gems who will for the large part go unnoticed. I have followed FC Tyumen since I moved out to Siberia over six years ago, and the relationship between the club and the city has been intriguing as freezing temperatures, competition from other sports and financial problems have threatened to drive a sizeable wedge between the two. Mainstays have been few and far between, but one of them is having the the most Indian of Summers: meet Khasan Mamtov.

Voted the 93rd most outstanding young person in Tyumen two years ago after captaining Tyumen to promotion out of the third tier, the 32-year-old forward has remained the focal point for the attack since his arrival in 2013. He soon won the captaincy from Mikhail Pimenyov after winning over Konstantin Galkin, and has held his position under Alexander Ivchenko to produce some of his finest form as well as shooting to second place in the goalscoring charts in the FNL. “He has passion and fire,” Galkin told me two years ago. “He isn’t the quickest, but he has he respect of his teammates.” The note about his lack of pace is telling, given that Galkin had stripped Pimenyov of the captaincy and told him to find a new club based on his speed.

I took a closer look at his impact on the pitch as Shinnik Yaroslavl visited the Geolog Stadium a fortnight ago to find out more about why he not only deserves respect for his character, but also as a member of the starting XI. For the majority of his career in Tyumen he has been played as the main striker in front of an attacking three in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and it was in this role he lined up on Sunday.

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Khasan Mamtov turns inside two defenders against Shinnik Yaroslavl (photo: Anton Sakerin via fc-tyumen.ru)

There are many ways to measure the confidence of a player on the pitch, but the simplest is in his intent to score. Mamtov has been on an incredible run of scoring form since the beginning of November, scoring 11 in 14 matches, and it showed inside the first ten minutes. Back to goal, he received the ball in the penalty area near the byline with nothing on; far from sensibly laying it off to a midfielder, he turned instantly inside, still apparently heading away from goal, before continuing his tight arc towards his target with the inside of his right boot. The two marking defenders hadn’t expected such sharp movement as Mamtov ghosted between them before smashing the most emphatic of finishes into the roof of the net.

Ten minutes gone, and the senior statesman of Tyumen had already outwitted his opponents. His speed is all in in his mind, not over metres on the pitch – he will never be caught outpacing his marker in a straight sprint, but he rarely needs to. In his career before arriving in Tyumen, he had never scored in double figures in a league season, but now has 25 in the last two campaigns as he advances into his fourth decade. Strike partners have come and gone at the Geolog – Sergey Serdukov, Artem Delkin (who currently leads the goalscoring standings from Mamtov by one) and Evgeniy Savin to name but three – but it has become apparent that far from supporting Mamtov, he simply needed to be given the freedom to use his intelligence and movement.

Not that he is a selfish player. For large periods of his first season he was employed out on the wing by previous manager Konstantin Galkin had tried to integrate him alongside the majestic talents of Cleyton, Savin, Vladimir Gogberashvili and Andrey Pavlenko, and at times he was even denied a place in the starting XI. His work rate and attitude was clearly exemplary as he earned the captaincy without grumbling.

Two more snap shots blazed just over from the edge of the box, and the opening quarter of an hour were all about the captain. The early stages in the game are where he is at his most dangerous, when opposing teams often prefer to trade harmless jabs to assess the match before settling into proceedings. As the game develops, he could easily fade as his fitness begins to tell, but instead he adapts his role to continue being useful to his side, and it proved to be the same again against Shinnik.

After half an hour, Roman Loktionov hacked away a desperate ball between two lunging attackers in the six yard box. Most strikers not blessed with pace would stay further up the field, but Mamtov drifted back, aware that the ball was unlikely to reach halfway. Sure enough, the hurried clearance reached him awkwardly bouncing, but his instinct with his first headed touch to take it away from the centre back, and the second to shield it and win an inevitable free kick, were simple but symptomatic of a great footballing brain.

As the first half petered out with the visitors barely having a sniff, Denis Chudin won a header aimed towards the left. Mamtov was goalside of his marker, but knowing the bounce would mean he had enough time, he waited before rushing directly to the bounce and timed his challenge perfectly, again winning possession and alleviating pressure on his midfield. It is his sort of awareness and judgement that makes his all round contribution so valuable. On the ball, his direct effect had waned since the early burst of energy as it often does, but his efficiency in his work off the ball becomes so important in keeping the momentum in his team’s favour.

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Who needs pace when you have speed of thought? The Dennis Bergkamp of the Russian lower leagues (photo: Anton Sakerin via fc-tyumen.ru)

Either side of him were two very contrasting players. On the left, the right footed speedster Andrey Pavlenko, and on the right the more technical Nikita Telenkov. Pavelnko’s threat is obvious, and provides the width for Mamtov to compliment his movement, but is not used as a direct supply line; very few crosses are directed into the box from Pavlenko, as Mamtov doesn’t have the pace or outstanding leap to cause a major aerial threat. It is not an entirely symmetrical set up as Telenkov often drops back into his more natural conventional midfield position and doesn’t have the electric pace of his fellow winger, but is able to thread passes through to his captain’s feet.

It is a system that makes marking Mamtov very difficult, especially as his positioning becomes more flexible as the game wears on. Quick thinking from Danil Klenkin to take a free kick deep in Tyumen’s half set Mamtov racing forwards to challenge the cenre half, whose header looped back towards Alexey Pustozerov. The number 10, who had barely had an effect on the game and was substituted a few minutes later, did well to control a bouncing ball under pressure and release Mamtov out wide. Nothing seemed to be on, until the skipper instantly turned inside and fed a return ball into space for Pustozerov. The importance of momentum in Mamtov game cannot be understated.

Late in the game and legs were beginning to tire, but Mamtov remained alert. Spotting Klenkin winning possession, he began drifting between the centre back and full back. Without breaking his stride, he knew Klenkin would be looking and received the slide rule pass just wide of the six yard box moving away from danger. Instead of turning back to retain the ball and waiting for a more mobile teammate to arrive, he shaped his body to turn inside around the backpedalling defender and hits a vicious snap shot towards the near post. While his effort was tipped round the post, his sharp mind kept Shinnik working instead of allowing them to relax.

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Nikita Telenkov celebrates his incredible winner as Mamtov watches on (photo: Anton Sakerin,  via fc-tyumen.ru)

A sloppy lack of marking then allowed Nikita Malyarov a free header from a corner to level the scored with ten minutes remaining, but moments later a horrendously late challenge on Tyumen keeper saw the Shinnik goalscorer sent off. This time, it was left to the younger head of Telenkov to weave a spellbinding path through the Shinnik defence and finish calmly inside th near post in added time to dramatically claim the three points, but Mamtov could rest easy knowing his work had been done. Without question the match winner has the ability and deserves the credit for a stupendous moment of magic, but his confidence to even consider it undoubtedly came from the guiding nous of his leader.

Khasan Mamtov has now turned 32 and is almost certainly going to end his career at the Geolog, so his only chance of a much-deserved shot at the Russian top flight is likely to come in 18 months’ time, assuming Tyumen can mount a sustained push towards the playoffs next season. Whether or not he is granted the opportunity, he can rest safe in the knowledge that his talents are appreciated in Western Siberia.

 

International Betting Tips – Round 1

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RIP Johan Cruyff 

Whether it’s the agony of waiting two weeks for the next installment of my Russian Premier League betting tips, or the mind numbing boredom of international week to get through, I thought I’d liven it up with a round of international tips to help you through till next weekend. I’m nice like that, you see. Both reasons would be perfect understandable – Estonia 0-0 Norway doesn’t exactly set the pulses racing – although there have been some other stories worth telling. Last night the Netherlands paid tribute to the passing of the greatest entertainer Europe has known, Johan Cruyff, as his nation fell to a dramatic 88-minute Blaise Matuidi winner. In Recife, Luis Suárez made his return from his 636-day international ban for biting – once a rat, always a rat – and celebrated his enforced absence with a crucial equaliser to keep Uruguay ahead of their eternal rivals.

Now friendly warm ups are notoriously tricky to navigate, but I have scoured the odds to find the best value for the weekend. Even straight up results can be tough to call in many matches, especially when the approach different nations take to the matches, but dig a little deeper and you can still find value. The plan is to continue this mini series in the run up to the European Championships, maybe even combine it with the finals themselves. Here goes…

Bet 1 Saturday 26 March, Russia v Lithuania

Russia to beat Lithuania, over 2.5 total goals, £10 @ 20/21

Potential Return: £19.52

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Leonid Slutskiy doesn’t always display outward confidence, but gets results – usually…

On paper, a straight match up between these two should be a prime candidate for over 4.5 goals as a minimum, but this is not paper. Russia were in dire straits a year ago under Fabio Capello, and while they recovered remarkably to qualify for the Euros from a seemingly impossible situation, they haven’t blown away any of their opponents (unless you count thrashing Liechtenstein 7-0, which was surely a routine result anyway). Leonid Slutskiy is a notoriously cautious manager, and there is very little to be gained by fielding a full strength side at home against Europe’s 46th best nation not to mention the urgent motivation of the players, so it is unlikely that there will be fireworks.

Lithuania themselves are not quite the whipping boys their ranking suggests though, at least not in terms of goals. Their only two wins away from home in the last five and a half years have come against San Marino and Liechtenstein – only Andorra are ranked lower in Europe – but they have only conceded more than four in a fixture on the road once in 16 years. Given that they have registered a single goal in their last eight games on their travels, the odds are that they won’t be troubling the score on Saturday, which makes over 2.5 goals a safer bet.

Bet 2 Saturday 26 March, Germany v England

Half Time/Full Time Draw/England win, £10 @ 10/1

Potential Return: £110

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Emile Heskey destroys Germany – a once in a lifetime moment

Ok, I admit this one is ever so slightly influenced by a wish to get one over on the World champions in their back yard. Those memories of Emile Heskey (!!!) and co sticking five past them in Munich are still very fresh in the mind of any England follower, but let’s ground ourselves in reality for a moment; a full repeat is about as likely as Leicester winning the… hang on, I mean as likely as Steve McLaren being bought a pint on Tyneside. Eric Dier will be crucial to England’s hopes of keeping out one of the world’s most impressive attacks, but with his club teammates around him he should have enough familiarity to settle.

If we are being brutally honest, Joachim w would look at England as second-rate opponents right now, and few could argue with him. He will not feel under a great deal of pressure faced with a lineup that boasts only 161 international caps between them, and will be certain to try out a few fringe players, especially as he is without a handful of the most experienced members of his squad who brought home the World Cup two years ago. The selection of Dele Alli as the focal point of England’s attacking trident behind the Premier League’s top goalscorer Harry Kane will be a fascinating test of the 19-year-old’s temperament and creativity under pressure. With Jamie Vary on the bench and the industry of Danny Wellbeck from the start, a stalemate at the break is a reasonable call, and after that any outcome is possible.

Bet 3 Tuesday 29 March, Republic of Ireland v Slovakia & France v Russia

Double on Republic of Ireland and France, £10 @ 7/5

Potential Return: £24

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Robbie Keane is Ireland’s all-time top goalscorer with 67 in 143 appearances

My last tip is a relatively low-risk chance to double your stake back, especially given the form of the team‘s involved. The Republic of Ireland claimed a safe 1-0 win over Switzerland, ranked 12th in the world by FIFA, on Friday, and in Slovakia they face a side who have overachieved in recent years but deserve some healthy respect for qualifying quite comfortably ahead of Ukraine. The Irish lack stellar names in their lineup, and are uncertain to be able to call on all-time record goalscorer and LA Galaxy ‘legend’ Robbie Keane, but have won five of their last seven, including over World Champions Germany. At home they are unbeaten in ten matches stretching back 18 months.

Russia are, and probably forever will be, an enigma. Their squad includes some serious creative talent in Alan Dzagoev, Roman Shirokov and Alexander Kokorin, not to mention the European Championship Qualifiers’ third top goalscorer in Artyom Dzyuba, in front of one of Europe’s most experienced and consistent defences. On the other hand, there are some clear issues on a mental level with their attitude and determination. In the last hree years they have only won five away from home, and those were against Moldova, Liechtenstein, Montenegro, Hungary and Luxembourg – hardly the most testing opposition. France come off the back of a spirited win in Amsterdam and have one of the most promising squads that will feature at their home tournament this summer.

 

Motorway Musings Special: Solitude, Darkness and Football

I‘m one of those people who occasionally enjoys his own company. Don’t get me wrong, I love a great evening with friends, or even betteplay time with my two girls, but for me sometimes theres real value to be had out of utter uninterrupted solace. Whether it is to plan a project or just to switch off and think of nothing at all – if you consider that thought for a moment, how many minutes a day do you think you have with absolutely zero noise of any kind? – those moments can be therapeutic for my mind.

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Recognise this old man? I almost didn’t a decade ago, but thanks to a fat Italian, I knew I’d seen Paolo Di Canio. For the record, he was rubbish on the day…

For example, attending a football match. You can often meet like-minded people in the terraces, but you can just as easily be stuck next to an utter bore who thinks for some strange reason you would be fascinated to listen to whatever drivel he spews forth for two hours. From time to time I find it easier to go it alone and take in all the sights and sounds by myself.

I’ll give you the perfect example: when I arrived in Italy for a year of *cough* hard study, my first weekend was looking very empty as the induction week at the university was on Monday and I had all day on Sunday to kill. Naturally I had researched the delightful town of Ferrara before I came, and knew the address of the stadium where the local side Società Polisportivo Ars et Labor, or SPAL for short, played.

Now I could have waited till the next home game, by when I would surely have met someone else with a passing interest in the game, but for the first impression I wanted complete concentration and freedom to explore what my senses could offer. As it turned out, there on the pitch was none other than Paolo Di Canio playing for a now-defunct fourth tier club from Rome, but had I not been on my own I would almost certainly not have leaned to the obese chain smoker to my right and asked if it was really him. Like most neutrals, I loved Di Canio when he was in England, and here was confirmation that I was watching him live for the first and almost certainly last time.

At the end of the match as I was making my way down the stands the entire crowd of 3,000 began turning towards me and cheering. A nice touch perhaps, but a little odd considering not one of them knew me. The large chap explained it was in fact for the flash git behind me – who also happened to be the club’s striker who had been injured but had chosen to watch the match with the hardcore fans and not in an corporate box. Again, I’d never have known that if I’d gone to the game with someone else.

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I travelled 340km to watch Ural v Dinamo, but these guys came from Novouralsk – a tiny bit closer…

A few months later I got separated from my travelling companion on a mammoth away trip to Torino and Tuscany in Milan train station, but as a result ended up dining al fresco with the agent who discovered Cristiano Ronaldo for Fiorentina long before Manchester United, his friend and a gorgeous 18-year-old Italian girl in a Tuscan village before being offered VIP seats to watch SPAL. That’s a whole other story though that I will tell you another time, but another perfect justification of going solo.

Russian Road Trip

What’s all this about watching football got to do with with motorways I hear you ask? Well, other than the most dedicated fans of clubs based at far ends of England, not many people would have done what I did last week, twice, which directly involved both. My home is in Tyumen where there is a second tier club side who I follow regularly, but the nearest Premier League side, Ural Sverdlovskaya Oblast, is based in Ekaterinburg which is, if you believe local people, ‘just next door’. Ahem. By next door they mean 340 kilometres and about five hours drive away.

I cover Russian football for two brilliant websites – Russian Football News and Futbolgrad and have managed to wangle a press pass for Ural, so last Monday I decided to travel by car. Back in August, I had gone for the first time by train, but the only affordable cabin was the horrendously cramped ‘platzkart’ in which my feet came over the end of the bunk by about a foot. The timetable was not exactly convenient, and it cost me about 4,000 rubles (only about £40 in today’s money) for the return journey. A mite over a full tank of petrol however, which sets me back about 1,400 rubles, would get me there and back conveniently with plenty of leg space, my own choice of music volume and, crucially, private time to myself.

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The delightful confines of platzkart – irony intended

With kickoff at a comfortable 4.30pm, I decided to set off after breakfast to give plenty of time to negotiate the city of Ekaterinburg itself. Home to around two million people, this city will be the easternmost venue for the 2018 World Cup lying on the border between Europe and Asia, and had a starring role in 20th century history as the place where the last Romanovs were executed in 1917. It is also, however, famous for having some of the worst roads within a city known to man.

There is a saying here that goes something like this: “There are two main problems in Russia; idiots, and roads. One caused the other.” The classic chicken and egg. Tyumen actually has the best roads in Russia, according to Tyumen residents. My father-in-law works as a senior road engineer and assures me this is true, and he’s not a man prone to spinning large tales, but for six years I had thought this must be a slightly exaggerated claim. The thing is, in all my time here I had never ventured on roads beyond 30 kilometres from my city, so I couldn’t offer much of an informed opinion on this matter.

In a previous post I likened drivers here to Playstation gamers, always trying to ‘beat’ the next car; whether they all play Gran Turismo or Crazy Taxi in their heads is anyone’s guess, suffice to say most are clinically mad. Out in the countryside, however, there is a strange camaraderie that exists between drivers that is conspicuous by its absence in the city. To help each other avoid being caught out for edging over the speed limit, cars will flash their headlights twice to warn oncoming traffic of an imminent police car on duty that they have just passed. It was oddly heartwarming that utter strangers, and let’s be honest, probably idiotic drivers, would be so thoughtful, and I gladly returned the favour to others later on.

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Clear blue skies and billions of trees make for a pleasant drive

The road to Ekaterinburg was, I had been assured, much improved and was free of the road rage that develops naturally on city roads. The route was simple; one motorway, no turnings, all the way. In the early morning once the initial stage of the journey has been cleared, it is quite quite a pleasant experience. The sun is behind you as you drive west, bathing the wide fields of snow with a light sparkle, and there is precious little traffic to disrupt you. There are a handful of villages to negotiate in the first 60-70 km, mostly relatively calm and drab, but for the majority of the way it is simple and you can delve into your mind to relax. That personal headspace that is so rare today.

The speed limit for these roads is officially 90 kph, which is not especially fast when you think about it, but there is is a good reason for this: nobody seems to know, or at least respect, this fact. As is so often the case in my experience when asking Russian people questions, multiple answers arose when I enquired to confirm the legal limit. “I think about 115,” said Sergey, my friendly attendant at the petrol station. “Or maybe 105… no wait, it’s between 90 and 110!” Great, that really helps I thought. If there’s one thing of don’t want to do, it’s get on the wrong side of the transport police with limited language skills and an even more limited wallet. Before you ask, yes I have bribed a policeman before…

I knew there would be plenty of policemen stationed along the motorway as it was a public holiday and lots of people would be expected to drive the same route as me. In total I passed 11 policemen over the entire 700 km round trip, and got stopped once – 2 km from home. I hadn’t done anything wrong at all – it was just a routine document check – but it didn’t instill me with confidence.

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Russia – it’s quite big. I travelled about 2% of its length, and it took 5 hours 

Once I got settled in though, the road was simple enough, and as I trailed an HGV to help keep my speed in check, I drank in the beauty of the snow-capped fir and birch trees lining my way. Some idiots aside who flew past at 130 kph, it gave me time to contemplate the sheer vastness of Russia. Here I was barely crossing a fingernail’s width on the map, and yet it was about to be the longest road journey I’d ever taken. People often ask me why on earth I came to Russia, and why I stayed once I got here, and I realised that moments like this were one of the reasons. Nobody else for miles around, with scenery to adorn Christmas cards – lovely.

Ekaterinburg

Then Ekaterinburg happened. My word, those are the biggest potholes I’ve ever seen – and I’ve been on a truck journey into the Amazon on mud tracks that were barely passable. Small children could have hidden comfortably in them. And worst of all, despite the snow having either completely melted or been cleared away (I think the former is much more likely), there were almost no road markings at all, which locals took to be an invitation to make up their own lanes and rules.

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That tall, white structure in the distance, visible from the stadium, is abandoned and covered in graffiti

I don’t want people to get the wrong impression about the city; I have only seen the route from the motorway to the northwest of the cenre where the SKB Bank Arena is, but the buildings and general environment were decidedly dog-eared. On a future trip I will endeavour to discover more about the history and architecture of Ekaterinburg, but this was not the time: Dinamo Moscow awaited. Google Maps guided me to the stadium, and after a much needed stretch of the legs I enjoyed a tense match that finished 1-1, even getting an exclusive interview with goalscorer Gerson Acevedo.

After filing my feature on the match, the journey back began at about 9pm in the pitch black; the sunshine and adventure of the morning was one thing, but the dead of Siberian night is another entirely. I repeated my tactic of tailing a truck, which was vital to avoid being caught out by the tricky changes in direction that the motorway took. A complete lack of markings to indicate the edge of the road would have been a bit hairy were it not for those two wonderful red tail lights guiding the way. Unfortunately, they began to swerve a bit too far over to the hard shoulder after a while, lurching back onto the road just in time – the driver was clearly falling asleep. Deciding that it was far safer to get past than wait behind him, I carefully waited for a rare patch of street lighting to overtake before painstakingly edging my way home.

At 2am, with the help of an opened window to keep me alert, I finally arrived back home 20 hours after waking up. To say it had taken the energy out of me is an understatement; rarely had my bed felt so welcoming. My journey had been far from spectacular – one writing colleague undertook a 15 hour, 1,400 km overnight slog from Moscow to Krasnodar in the south two day before – but in my own way I felt like I’d achieved something. So what was the first thing I thought of when I woke up? Let’s do it all again of course…