Of all the World Cup host cities, Kaliningrad has potentially the most interesting geography, located in a place most people think isn’t actually Russia.
Kaliningrad isn’t connected to mainland Russia. Instead, it’s a tiny exclave of less than a million people sandwiched in between Poland and Lithuania on the coast. The main city in the exclave, also called Kaliningrad, is one of the smallest to host World Cup games, with around 430,000 residents.
For the World Cup, Kaliningrad is host to 4 matches, including Spain vs. Morocco, which I attended.
Why is Kaliningrad a host?
Russia has many cities larger than Kaliningrad that serve as host. So why was Kaliningrad selected? My guess is geography, for both political and tourism reasons.
Politically, hosting matches in Kaliningrad provides an opportunity for the Russian government to show the world that Kaliningrad is a fully integrated part of Russia. It also shows that Russia is closer to Europe than people may be generally aware of.
For tourism, Kaliningrad is attractive because it’s easy to get to, especially if you’re living in Europe. While most flights from Kaliningrad go to other parts of Russia, it’s possible for someone from Europe to fly to nearby Gdansk (Poland) or Kaunas (Lithuania) and catch a bus or train into Kaliningrad. This makes matches really accessible for European teams, and some of the biggest have matches in Kaliningrad, including Spain, England, and Belgium.
Okay, so what’s Kaliningrad like?
One may think that with its geography, Kaliningrad might have a lot in common with Lithuania and Poland, especially in terms of the people. However, the people are very Russian. It’s ethnically majority Russian, everything is in Russian, everyone speaks Russian, and overall it feels like a very integrated part of Russia.
There are, however, many signs of the past that show a non-Russian history. Kaliningrad was previously part of Germany and was known as Koenigsberg, until it was transferred to the Soviet Union after World War II in 1946. The fusion between the German history, Soviet past, and Russian present shows in the architecture. There are still many German style buildings and houses, mixed in the city with Soviet style housing blocs and churches that would be appropriate anywhere in Russia.
As a city, Kaliningrad is quite small. There’s not a ton to see or do, and even though it is late June, the weather was still poor: 55 degrees, rainy, and overcast. However, apparently the beach at the sea is quite nice if the weather is nice – although I have no idea how often that’s the case.
Because it’s a World Cup, being in Kaliningrad for the match was a great time.
I arrived the day before the match, and Victory Square (the city’s main one) that night was filled with Moroccan fans chanting and singing. Morocco was eliminated from advancing in the World Cup before the match, but that didn’t stop the fans from being excited. Still: there are things for Morocco to celebrate: it’s their first World Cup in 20 years, they’ve played well and have been unlucky to lose, and a win over Spain, their neighbor and soccer powerhouse, would be a great way to end their World Cup.
The passion of the fans is what makes the World Cup special. At 2 AM, from my Airbnb I could still hear fans chanting “Viva Magreb.” And on gameday it was even better.
Victory Square was filled with fans from both sides, and the singing went on all day before the 8 PM match.
At a nearby restaurant, Spain fans packed the place and provided some great entertainment, as you can see above. They were certainly ready for the match.
As for the match
Kaliningrad Stadium is beautiful and brand new, a 35,000 seater built for this tournament. Clearly, they’ve spent a lot of money on it, but it’s hard to imagine how useful the stadium will be after the tournament for a small exclave whose team has never been in the Russian Premier League.
The security getting in was about as slow and intense as I’ve seen anywhere. We got to the stadium an hour before the match but didn’t even get in until kickoff.
Once inside, there are no bad seats. An incredible atmosphere to see a match. Both sides brought a lot of passion, but with around 70% of the stadium being Moroccan, their side was definitely louder.
The match was both entertaining and strange. Spain didn’t show well at all, giving up a goal on a terrible mistake and then another on a corner kick. Morocco was up 2-1 and the huge upset looked likely, but Spain had a goal in the final minutes awarded after VAR showed there was no offsides for the match to end 2-2. It was surely a disappointment for Morocco to not get the win, but they played really well against one of the world’s best.
I see no reason for myself to visit Kaliningrad again. It was fun for a World Cup and I had a great time, but there’s not a ton to do there (although I was told the coast was nice, but I didn’t have time to check it out.) However, if you do end up visiting Kaliningrad, it won’t break the bank: decent Airbnbs are available for $30 a night in the town center and hotels, when it’s not the World Cup, are very affordable. However, if you only get to visit one place in Russia, make it somewhere else.