Belfast Telegraph

From Russia with love: Northern Ireland fans get into party spirit at World Cup

By Adrian Rutherford

They dreamt of following Northern Ireland to the World Cup.

But these three fans were not going to let the small matter of not qualifying spoil their plans for a summer in Russia.

Paul Alexander, Simon Spence and Steven Earney have travelled to Moscow for the tournament.

The trio, from Lisburn, organised the trip two years ago shortly after Northern Ireland's Euro 2016 adventure.

However it didn't quite go to plan after Michael O'Neill's side were knocked out after losing a play-off against Switzerland last November.

Undeterred, the supporters, who are involved with Hillsborough Boys Junior Football Club, decided they would head to Russia anyway.

They have already seen three matches and plan on catching another two before heading back home later this week.

"We decided two years ago, after the Euros, to go to the World Cup," explained Paul.

"Hopefully it would be to see Northern Ireland play. Unfortunately they didn't qualify, but we had booked our tickets anyway.

"We decided to go through with it. We are here for over a week and we're going to five matches in Moscow over seven days."

The three were at the Luzhniki Stadium on Thursday as hosts Russia beat Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the opening game.

On Saturday they watched Argentina draw with Iceland. Yesterday, they were back at the Luzhniki to see champions Germany begin their World Cup defence in the defeat against Mexico. Today, they are flying to St Petersburg for a day trip.

They will return to Moscow tomorrow to see the Group H game between Poland and Senegal, before watching Portugal v Morocco on Wednesday.

Paul said: "We were at the opening ceremony, which was good, but Argentina v Iceland was even better. The fans were amazing and the game itself was good."

For all three, the visit to Russia has been an eye-opening experience. The lead-up to the World Cup was overshadowed by controversy and whether the tournament should even be staged in the country.

But Paul said they have been warmly welcomed and has been impressed by the atmosphere in Moscow.

"It has been amazing - Russia is an incredible place," he added.

"I feared it might be a disaster. I wasn't sure what to expect. My family was also a bit wary about me going. But since we got here we have found the place to be unbelievable. Moscow is a great city, everything has been so well organised. The people are friendly and the atmosphere has been great.

"We told our wives we would be going for a week. Actually it was nine days, so they probably won't be too happy. We've had an amazing time."

They have also tried to immerse themselves in the local culture. On Friday they visited a Russian speciality restaurant where they sampled frozen fish, smoked reindeer and vodka.

"Everyone needs to try the frozen fish," Steven added.

"I'm not a big fish fan, but it was pretty good." Paul said the reality of Russia is very different from what many expect.

"All the fans have found the people here to be very friendly, and it's good for the Russians to meet us too," he added.

"People come here with their own perceptions, and they maybe have their perceptions of visitors too. But it's been a wonderful few days."

Simon, who has lived in Switzerland and visited Russia previously, said: "I used to come here regularly and have a lot of friends here.

"In the past I'd have had some difficulty at the airport, but this time we just breezed through."

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