The omens were promising: a 77-year-old German-Canadian in the hostel was attending his 12th consecutive World Cup.
He travelled to his second – Argentina in 1978 – by cargo boat. “I saw Scotland, they weren’t very good.”
He can’t have seen many better games than this – he said Italy/Brazil in 82 was the best he’d seen.
As at many of the stadiums it can be a long walk to reach Kazan Arena. Here, you’re dropped off by bus two miles from the arena – the authorities have ensured no unofficial transport can get close to venues.
There are no short cuts, the volunteers’ foam hands point you along the only route possible.
The Brazilians outnumbered Belgians hugely – maybe 20,000 Brazilians and a thousand opponents.
Unlike in Rostov however they brought their voice boxes along and were in proactive mood.
Pre-match in the stadium is a ritual: 13 minutes before kick off, AC/DC’s Thunderstruck fills the Arena.four minutes of that and then the flags are unfurled, the teams come out.
Brazil’s anthem has been edited down, something their fans don’t like so they’ve taken to singing it in full after it’s been curtailed. The Belgians were barely audible.
Early on, Belgium looked nervous at the back but Marouane Fellaini and Witsel, for me the key players in this game, did a Joe Lesley-Joe Allen double act and a supreme first half ensued.
Brazil seemed to have taken on board the play-acting criticism and the first writhing I spotted came in the 34th minute. Neymar was noticeably improved.
The first goal was a shock, the second stunned everyone with its brilliance – de Bruyne’s performances look like the key to the tournament.
2-0 down, we at least saw Brazil respond in a manner they could not manage against Switzerland. This game was so riveting, even the Russianswere paying attention.
Usually attempts to get a Mexican wave going start early. Here it wasn’t until the68th minute that it emerged. Russians love the wave – they love it more than the football, it seems. I think it makes them feel exotic.
A tense last 20 and when Lukaku was substituted you didn’t fancy Belgium’s chances if extra time was forced.
Brazilians were wound up but did not reach Colombian levels of hysteria – it was as though they didn’t quite believe their side was good enough. And even then they could have equalised.
Far be it for me to offer advice to Brazil but having witnessed two of their last three World Cup quarter final defeats – here and in Frankfurt – it seems they’ve given up on trying to tackle. Preferring to foul instead means they break up play rather than try to win the ball back. Sometimes that costs.
Credit to the ref too – play flowed like no other match I’ve witnessed here.
This World’s over
At the posh nightclub Snob – an open air venue overlooking the water – a dancing 7ft polar bear helped Brazil fans boogie away the pain.
Edelweiss beauties with Rapunzel hair jigged away with the boys from Rio. Two Germans in full Mannschaft kit – hey, you guys were knocked out a week ago – swigged from steins, Mexicans mooched around in their elaborate sombreros.
It summed up this most surreal, unexpected of World Cups which continues to astound and confound.
‘We don’t eat children,’ said my hostel host Regina on my arrival in Kazan. And for sure, ordinary Russians have been fabulous here. Happy, friendly, welcoming. Those who run the country, well they’re almost a different species.
A complete contrast to my previous visit 15 years ago. I loved it then but it was often scary, croc-eat-croc dangerous. Have all the skinhead gangs been sent to the gulag?They must have shut the Rosa Klebb customer service academy too as it’s clear young meter and greeters have been trained to be smiley, unthreatening.
Unless a cheap ticket somehow emerges for the Moscow semi, that’s the World Cup over.
Six games in five cities.
The best, fortunately, was this one. Two tremendous sides featuring giants of the game. Yes, even Fellaini. His many detractors should be forced to comb his hair.
Brazil fans largely took the setback with good grace. No sulking, no ambulance trashing. They partied long into the night.
Russia’s proved safer than the most optimistic British predictions of catastrophe largely because, as with rats in London, you’re never more than six feet away from a copper or soldier.
Shock horror, Friendly Russians, 17-hour train trips where the wagon guard will show you his ‘This is me fishing on Lake Baikal’s ice next to a mountain of trout’ pictures on his computer.
And dancing polar bears as the sun rises on the Volga at 3am in a club called Snob after you’ve watched football demigods Brazil bested by Belgium.
It’s been good and I don’t want to come home.