St Petersburg: There is no risk of England being mobbed by adoring Russians in Repino, a quiet training base north of St Petersburg that feels like Finland with a touch of Florida. One resident hinted that locals would be more likely to support Germany than Gareth Southgate’s men in this World Cup if the hosts went out.
Vera Ivanovna’s house adjoins the Spartak Zelenogorsk stadium, rebuilt to accommodate England’s squad as they prepare for group games against Tunisia, Panama and Belgium. Ivanovna played as a girl on the pitch near Repino but struggles to see it now above the high fences raised to protect England’s privacy.
In a garden lined with flowers — her peonies stood out — Ivanovna said: “It’s really high security, but we need that. It needs to be secure because people think Russians are all terrorists and evil people. The screens went up. We were watching but they built the fence and we can’t see any more.”
Despite the political friction evident in those remarks, Repino is a mellow place, with no major attractions but enough recreational outlets to offer England’s players the odd escape from their hotel, which looks like a ski lodge. There is a climbing park called Tree to Tree, a small zoo, a ‘Repino Club’ resort and a modern burger joint called True Burgers, with a replica mincing machine on the roof: a warning, perhaps, about what will happen to English football if the team crashes out at the group stage again.
On the scale of England training camps, Repino belongs alongside La Baule (France 98) or Awaji Island (2002 World Cup): quiet coastal spots, but in this case with one of the world’s great cities a 45-minute drive away. Here, money and power migrate up the coast — a bit like in Lancashire, around Formby and Southport, only with oligarchs.
Three blocks from the seafront, which is skirted by forest, luxury houses redolent of New England loom between the trees. Many are gated and silent. Some locals believe Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, has one of his properties on this northern side of town.
In 2012, England stayed in the centre of Krakow and mostly liked it. In 2014, they fell foul of Rio de Janeiro’s logistics for a brief stay in a military training centre on the rocks. Two years ago in France, England bedded down in Chantilly, a grand setting for a rotten ending, against Iceland. The English obsession with training grounds stems mainly from a morbid fear of what boredom might do to the players.
Here in Russia, the team’s first realisation needs to be that the host country is on high alert against external threats, and was sharply attuned to internal security anyway, even before it took a leading role in the war in Syria, with the threat of “blowback”.
The police and security services around Repino are hyper-alert, so the players are not in an environment where they might head out in ones and twos to explore the forests on mountain bikes. In St Petersburg, entering a shopping centre or metro station requires you to put your bag through a scanner. And in that city, which is visible from Repino first in the shape of the immense Gazprom tower, which evokes London’s Shard, England’s players could visit the Hermitage — probably the world’s biggest museum — the Winter Palace, where the Bolshevik revolution took symbolic hold, or the Dostoevsky or Faberge museums.
Already, you can see this is a World Cup of logistics and language barriers and moderate expectations when it comes to a social life for the participants (though World Cups have a habit of transcending such limits). Ivanovna, with her proximity to England training, is not familiar with Trent Alexander-Arnold or Nick Pope but thinks Gareth Southgate’s team will be “strong”. She says: “I’m not really a football fan but, of course, I’ve heard of David Beckham, Zidane and Pele.”