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Warm welcome on Baltic Sea
At least England’s footballers are getting an easier ride than their Russian counterparts right now. “Destined for defeat” was the headline in Wednesday’s edition of the Moscow Times, complete with a team photograph of these apparent no-hopers. Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un were all bumped
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off the front page for
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the newspaper to make its point: “Ageing and inexperienced: why Russia is doomed to fail.”
Four hundred and fifty miles north-west on the Gulf of Finland, the mood was considerably lighter. Teenage locals with foam hands showed the guests to their seats for England’s first training session at the Stadium Spartak Zelenogorsk, set in a pine forest close to the Baltic Sea. People from the village came with gifts – bread, salt and a golden teapot – and the players were only an hour or so late for the reception. “Applaud to keep warm,” came the message from the woman with the microphone, as the wind picked up and the temperatures dropped.
In fairness, the weather was not too bad and if you watched Frankie Boyle’s BBC documentary on Russia, it is fair to say that Repino, in keeping with most seaside resorts, is more pleasant in the summer than it is out of season, when the sea freezes over and the line comes to mind – copyright: Morrissey – about the coastal town that they forgot to close down.
It will be a lot hotter in Volgograd, though, when England play Tunisia on Monday in their first assignment of Group G and would it be too impudent to wonder whether, in hindsight, the Football Association might have been better sticking by its original choice of a warmer base? Too late now, of course, but when Gareth Southgate decided the heat and humidity of a Black Sea resort might be too oppressive he would not have known their opening game would take place in another city where the temperatures will be close to 30C. Sweden took the hotel, the Kempinski Grand, that had been earmarked for the England team in Gelendzhik and Southgate’s men will have to acclimatise the best they can when they fly to Volgograd on Sunday.
That apart, the only minor issue is the knee injury that meant Marcus Rashford missing the morning
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training drills and the autograph-signing session when, noticeably, Southgate stayed out a
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lot longer than any
of his players. Rashford’s absence, however, was only a precautionary measure and the Manchester United forward will be fit for Monday’s game. Eric Dier is carrying a minor problem, with his left thigh strapped, but England are injury-free and controversy-free, rubbernecking in Spain’s direction after the sacking of Julen Lopetegui, and it has not needed long in Repino to get the impression that the players are being looked after impeccably behind the scenes.
At Euro 2016 one complaint was that the air conditioning in the team’s Chantilly hotel was too fierce and, no kidding, the pillows too plump. Best of all, the chandeliers had to be removed from the £500-a-night Auberge du Jeu de Paume because the FA was so concerned they might be damaged if the players’ table-tennis tournaments got out of hand. These operations are always complicated because the players can be so high maintenance – Daniel Sturridge once asked if he could light joss sticks in his room – but there is a reason why the FA coddles and spoils them so much. For Southgate, it is about eliminating any possible excuses and creating a culture whereby everything is expected to run smoothly.
That process has gone as far as the FA shipping luxury mattresses to help everyone get a good night’s sleep. The team hotel, the ForRestMix Club, already had blackout blinds to get around the fact it is still light here at 11pm, and light again from 3.30am, and when the players checked into their rooms they found that somebody from the FA had already been there and the walls were adorned with photographs of their families, children, wives and so on. No cuddly lions, though. England’s fluffy mascots – Kit, Cee and Leo – were given their own seats, and even had their own inflatable headrests, on the flight into France for Euro 2016. This time, there
has been none of that silliness.
As for the potential for boredom, Southgate has described that as a red herring and recalled how he was once
told by a physio at Aston Villa that “only boring people complain of being bored”. Even so, it is a regular complaint in major tournaments and Jermain Defoe has spoken about it being such a problem at the 2010 World Cup that he and Wayne Rooney spent one afternoon together watching Rooney’s entire wedding video.
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