Gelendzhik (Russia) (AFP) – Warmer and sunnier than distant Moscow, Russia’s Black Sea coast has been a perfect match for Scandinavian teams as World Cup training bases.
The teams, from countries where summer starts late and finishes earlier, are finding the “Russian Riviera” very muich to their taste — and its vibe seems to suit their laid-back approach.
“We couldn’t wait to get here as even in May we were still scraping snow off cars and pitches at home,” Iceland assistant coach Helgi Kolvidsson told AFP.
Denmark and Sweden also booked locations along the coast which earned its “Riviera” nickname thanks to its blue water and string of resorts hugging the western foothills of the Caucasian mountain range.
“After our game against Argentina in chilly Moscow, we were glad to get back ‘home’ again,” smiled Kolvidsson, who commutes to training sessions in the small resort of Kabardinka by bicycle.
Home for the Nordic minnows is a secluded hotel a five-minute bike ride from the training pitches alongside pine-forested hills and Soviet-era “sanatorium” health and spa complexes.
Along the seafront, Russian tourists in flip-flops swelter on the stony beach, and snack on Caucasian specialities like shashlik (skewered cubes of grilled meat) and chebureki (deep-fried stuffed pastries).
But apart from a sighting posted on the town’s Instagram page of bearded Iceland captain Aron Gunnarsson having a go at a funfair shooting range, locals have not seen much of the World Cup players.
“We live entirely in the hotel, far from reality,” Sweden’s Gustav Svensson told AFP at their base in Gelendzhik, ten kilometres along the coast from Kabardinka.
Open training sessions after the Nordic teams arrived attracted full houses of cheering locals, with those unable to get in standing on boxes or nearby balconies to catch a glimpse of the action.
– ‘Never had this before’ –
In Gelendzhik, people gathered on a hill overlooking the stadium to see the Swedes in the flesh.
“It’s good for the children in particular to see the World Cup close at hand, maybe it will inspire them,” said Sergey Vladimirovich, a semi-professional footballer with a Gelendzhik club who was watching the Iceland session.
Along the roads, “Russia 2018” billboards emblazoned with the Scandinavian team pictures point out the World Cup host locations, but elsewhere there are few signs of their presence.
A floral display in Danish colours hints at Denmark’s nearby training pitch in Anapa, an hour’s drive west along the coast. In Kabardinka, a solitary Iceland flag flies outside a karaoke bar.
“We only get Russians coming to these resorts, I don’t think people quite know how to react to foreigners,” said 23-year-old Sergey Ivanov, a waiter.
In a sign that authorities expected an influx of foreign tourists, local people told AFP that large “Russia 2018” banners erected at the front of Iceland’s training stadium hide temporarily shuttered shopfronts behind.
“I think they thought visitors might consider the shops unsightly,” said a hotel receptionist who asked not to be named.
“They’ll open again once Iceland leave,” she said.
But visiting fans put off by formidable distances — Iceland’s nearest match venue is in Rostov, some 500 kilometres (310 miles) away — have not ventured as far as the team bases.
“No-one has shown up,” said Alina, a bored-looking 18-year-old student volunteer at an information stand in Kabardinka.
In the meantime, locals complain that hotels and restaurants, expecting a hike in guest numbers, have bumped up their prices.
“I can hardly afford an ice-cream this year,” grumbled Alina, who has lived in the town all her life.
But although World Cup fever has not broken out by the Black Sea, Russians are still glad the Nordic trio came, she insisted.
“We’ve never had something like the World Cup here before, it’s good to get a flavour of it,” Alina said.