Fifa World Cup: persistence pays off in Russia on the hunt for an England-Croatia semi-final ticket
How a desperate search for a World Cup semi-final ticket paid off after a last-minute decision to head out to Russia
After ticking that I’m not a robot, nor a Russian national or Russian resident, thousands of words of terms and conditions are skipped before you get past the outer gate on Fifa’s ticket portal, a website so frustrating it makes Britain’s Brexit negotiations look simple.
I decided to go to the World Cup finals two weeks ago and set about getting a visa, flights, accommodation and match tickets.
You wait in an online queue, ready to take your chance if the tickets flash up. Occasionally they do – and then disappear instantly. Infrequently, the site even lets you put one in your online basket – but it doesn’t let you enter your security code to complete the transaction.
“It feels like some kind of futuristic dystopia,” messages Matt, an England supporting mate who spent seven hours of Sunday trying to get a ticket for the semi-final between England and Croatia. “I continually confirm that I’m not a robot only to be rewarded with more grey nothing. Any self respecting robot would have given up by now.”
I use a ticket number from a friend already in Russia for the Fan ID which acts as a visa waiver. Getting your passport style photo to conform to the exact specifications is tricky, but once the photo is accepted it takes three minutes and gets you into Russia.
On Monday night, having asked anyone who might be able to help with match tickets for both semi-finals, my plane touches down in Moscow and the search continues. I figured that Russia’s elimination, plus those of the South American sides with vast followings would slacken demand in the huge stadiums, but in five days I’ve been offered one ticket for a face value of US$485 for France v Belgium – a price too high.
Red Square was glorious on a warm summer night, a parade to the world’s nationalities. An Algerian man wearing beautiful white linen trousers and a hat poses with his flag outside the cake-like domes of St Basil’s cathedral.
Nearby, a group of Everton fans have flown without tickets, also navigating the Fan ID system.
“It’s the World Cup semi-finals,” explains one. “We have to be here.”
Four Brazilians wait outside one of Moscow’s stunning metro stations, where the escalators go so deep you wonder whether you’re going to pop out in Kowloon or Cape Town. They’re disappointed with their team but will still go to the semi-final and final.
Another Brazilian friend knows an Argentinian with a spare ticket for the England v Croatia game.
“US$700,” messages the Argentinian via WhatsApp, for the price of his category 2 ticket.
“Too expensive for me,” I reply.
“NP,” he replies. No problem. But it is a problem. I tell some former Manchester United players working in Moscow that I need a ticket.
“You’ve come without one?!” replies one.
At midnight on Monday at Moscow’s Leningrad station, fans huddled around charging points for their phones while waiting for the night trains to St Petersburg.
I share a sleeper carriage to St Petersburg with Margot, a 50-year-old Dinamo Moscow fan who proudly shows pictures of herself with fans from around the world. She’s beaming with pride at the success of the World Cup in her country. Margot thinks England will be world champions. Did I really hear that right? England, a team with one win in their previous seven tournament matches before Russia.
I walk 30 minutes from St Petersburg’s Moscow station, past a jogging Stuart Pearce, who missed a penalty which led to England being eliminated the last time they reached the semi-finals 28 years ago, to collect the laminated Fan ID to get into the stadium. I still have no ticket.
Matt messages twice, first at 0952 to say: “I’ve officially given up. I’d have to leave in the next few hours and though doable, my stress levels are going through the roof.”
Then, at 1057 to say: “F*** it. Flight and hotel booked. Arriving tonight at 10pm. Any help with Fan ID appreciated.” Exasperated at failure on Fifa’s system, he’s paid US$534 for a match ticket from a third party. He’s watched England around the world, it’s worth pushing the boat out for a semi-final.
In St Petersburg, a mate from Manchester texts to ask if I want a face value ticket for the France v Belgium game – US$285. I say that I do and, despite paying more than for any ticket in my life, happily shout ‘Vive La France!’ at a group of French fans who walk past. “Thanks,” replies one in English.
Collecting the Fan ID takes five minutes. There’s another text from a former player.
“Think I’ve got you a ticket,” he says of an England ticket. There’s a follow up message from someone helping to confirm. “You’ll be sat next to (X – a very famous former German international) and he can get a bit lively. Is that OK?”
Why wouldn’t it be OK? Watching the World Cup semi-final involving England alongside a German legend. I wonder if he’ll be lively if England win? If.