Apathy and a warm welcome, welcome to England's sleepy World Cup base

Apathy and a warm welcome, welcome to England's sleepy World Cup base
By Sportsbeat

26/12/2017 at 08:49

Natalya sells pickles in a supermarket car park. She wears a fur coat and thick gloves to keep out the cold. Other sellers stand alongside Natalya, their stalls laden with fabrics, wooden ornaments, and also pickles. Grey hair pokes out from under their headscarves as they brave the cold for their trade, but few people are interested, bypassing the stalls in favour of the supermarket's enticing

This is Repino, a tiny spa town in Russia on the Gulf of Finland, where England's footballers will base themselves at next summer's World Cup.

Fewer than 3,000 people live here, but the tourism industry funds the hotels and restaurants that line the sandy beach. The beach is now covered in patchy December snow as the temperature drops just below freezing.

Repino lies between the coast and silver birch forests. The little railway station stands in a clearing opposite the supermarket, the tracks slicing a path through the trees. During winter there is little activity in the town's central square. Tourists tend to stay indoors, giving Natalya's pickles little chance of leaving the confines of their jars.

Natalya is the clear leader of her group. She has confidence, an air of authority. Her stall juts out slightly, her pickles somehow look juicier than the rest. Despite the slight wind, her commanding voice is clearly audible.

"What World Cup? Football? There's a World Cup next year? I didn't know," she says.

She is happy to talk, particularly to a foreigner. She speaks quickly and animatedly, keen to praise everything from Repino to the goods she sells. When she makes a joke, her colleagues laugh. Their laughter is genuine, Natalya is well-liked.

"If England are staying here then they are very welcome and we are glad to have them as guests," she says.

Behind Natalya stands the town's chapel, a building the local community have cobbled together some funds to restore. Elena sits inside, taking donations and looking after churchgoers' coats as they go to pray. Her voice is softer than Natalya's. She speaks perfect English and is well aware of next year's tournament.

"A lot of residents of Repino will take the opportunity to meet the football fans and football team and to share all the best values of our nation," she says.

Back in the car park, Natalya has found a buyer for her pickles. Igor lives down the road in Zelenogorsk, where England's training pitch is being built. He served in the navy for 15 years, based on the island of Kronstadt, just visible from the Repino shoreline. Now he works as a taxi driver. He, too, is pleased that England will stay in Repino, but is wary of Russia's reputation abroad.

British audiences are often reminded of violent clashes that broke out between English and Russian supporters in Marseille during Euro 2016. News of Russian domestic football often centres around racism towards players.

"I watch the news and hear many things about Russia, and so much of it is not true," says Igor, spitting on the ground at the injustice.

"But people will see next year what Russian hospitality is like. Everyone is welcome!"

He smiles at the prospect, thanks Natalya and climbs back into his car.

England's footballers may meet Natalya, Elena and Igor during next summer's World Cup. Their base hotel is just around the corner, at the Forrest Mix Country Club. There won't be snow and there won't be fur coats, but Natalya will be here, selling her wares.

Not every Russian poses a threat to England supporters. Some just sell pickles.  

Alex Marrow/Sportsbeat 2017

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