You only get a feeling of how big Russia is once you are here. A 'local' derby between teams may still involve a 200km journey for away fans and when FC Luch-Energia Vladivostok were in the Premier-Liga it took a flight of eight and a half hours to reach there from Moscow. Or seven days on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
From a selfish perspective, it certainly helps that Russia's representatives in this season's UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League all play their home games in the western cities of Moscow, St Petersburg and Kazan. A four-hour train journey between my base in the capital and Russia's second city, St Petersburg, makes a nice change but there is still potential for drama – past experiences attest to that.
Two years ago I was assigned to cover FC Rubin Kazan's UEFA Champions League home meeting with FC Barcelona and, unusually, I travelled the day before the match rather than on the day of the game itself – it is a good job I did. My flight was delayed due to fog in Kazan and though we eventually took off in hope, the mists had not lifted when we arrived. The plane, running low on fuel, was forced to land in Kirov, still 300km from my destination.
The only option was to complete the journey by taxi, a six-hour journey that gracefully only came to €150. I arrived at my hotel a stone's throw away from the Centralniy Stadion at 03.00 refreshed by an incredibly interesting experience I will never forget. That evening Rubin provided one for their supporters, earning a 1-1 draw with Barça to add to their 2-1 triumph at the Camp Nou 12 months earlier.
Such situations are a rarity, as transportation links improve ahead of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. I have mixed emotions. Touring can be a bit of a nightmare at times, but the pluses significantly outweigh the minuses. Travelling around the country and meeting fans and club officials has been wonderful and the vast majority are extremely warm in both their hospitality and generosity. I will miss it.
The opinions expressed here are the writer's own and not those of UEFA.
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