World Cup 2018: 'Secret' Soviet city forgets the past to welcome England fans

Ben Morgan, Robert Jobson
Beautiful Nizhny Novgorod will welcome thousands of England fans: AFP/Getty Images

A once-sinister Soviet-era “closed city” where dissidents were held in exile is preparing to roll out the red carpet to greet thousands of England’s World Cup football fans .

Three Lions supporters are expected to arrive at Nizhny Novgorod — 250 miles and four hours’ train ride east of Moscow — over the coming days in the build-up to Sunday’s crunch Group G game against Panama.

A new 45,000-seat stadium will host five other matches during the World Cup, including Lionel Messi’s Argentina against Croatia tomorrow.

But for decades Nizhny Novgorod, Russia’s fifth biggest city, was closed off to foreigners and did not even appear on maps.

Under Soviet rule the ancient city was known as Gorky, after Russian writer Maxim Gorky, and was where dissident nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov was banished for six years.

It was also a secretive centre for building tanks and planes and a key chemical weapons development base until the 1960s. It opened up in the Nineties glasnost era when the governor was Boris Nemtsov, who counted Margaret Thatcher as a fan. He was assassinated in Moscow in 2015.

Today the region still boasts a large number of automobile and IT companies, including Intel, and Western workers — and now football fans — are welcomed with open arms. The local authorities have bent over backwards to greet fans, with volunteers ready at the airport and roads swathed in “welcome” signs.

Neil McDonald, 38, originally from Devon, lived in the city for three years while working for an oil company.

He said: “The England fans are in for a fantastic welcome. It could not be more different than the past. It is good for the city and for the local businesses, because they don’t usually get so many nationalities visiting.

“It is so different to how it was in the past, when even in the Seventies you could not buy a map of the city or find anything about it.

“Now it is a major destination for river cruise ships so you do see foreign tourists marching down the street before getting back on their boat.

“The fan zone has been set up on a hill and there is an incredible view all around.”

England fans will be well catered for on the main Rozhdestvenskaya street, which stretches for more than a mile with bars and restaurants.

Nizhny Novgorod sits on the meeting point between the Volga and Oka rivers, but Mr McDonald does not think players will be swarmed by midges — unlike in Volgograd.

He said: “It will only be a problem near the rivers but the fan zone and the town centre are high above them. England fans should not have a problem with midges this time.” But another challenge for fans could be torrential summer storms, which this week left parts of the city flooded.

Locals hope fans will explore the city’s heritage, which includes the 16th century “Kremlin” hillside fortress and the longest cable car ride in Europe, a 3,660-metre trip over the Volga that takes 13 minutes and costs 90 rubles — just over £1.It also has the Chkalov Staircase with more than 500 steps... “I only once managed to make it up the stairs. Anyone who does is treated like a hero”, said Mr McDonald.

He added: “The contrast with how it used to be is stark. England fans will have a hell of a good time when they arrive.”