England supporters in the Russian city of Volgograd for their team’s first World Cup match on Monday were largely on their best behaviour but outnumbered by thousands of Tunisian fans — and besieged by mosquitoes.
Two England supporters were taken off a train on their way to the southern city and charged with being drunk in public, although those who made it to Volgograd were given a warm welcome despite England fans’ reputation for trouble at past tournaments.
“We were under the impression we would be constantly under attack. Before we got here we were worried, my family was worried,” said 27-year-old Jordan Price as he enjoyed a beer with two friends on a bar terrace.
The trio, however, said locals had even offered them help in buying insect repellent to protect against the swarms of midges that had descended on the city on the banks of the Volga.
Turnout for the match, however, was expected to be low, with less than 2,000 tickets sold to fans coming from Britain, according to England’s Football Supporters’ Federation.
Gareth Southgate’s men were set to take on Tunisia in the city formerly known as Stalingrad, site of World War II’s bloodiest battle where almost two million people lost their lives.
The draw comes as ties between Moscow and London reach lows not seen since the Cold War, following the poisoning of the former double agent Sergei Skripal along with his daughter in England, as well as accusations of Russian interference in the Brexit referendum.
But London-born Camilla Croxton, in Russia for the first time for the tournament, had only kind words for the country and the locals she had met.
“I went in with low expectations but Russia has blown my mind,” the 28-year-old NGO worker told AFP.
“Volgograd has a really small-town vibe. People will come up to me and try to speak English, even if their English isn’t the best. Google Translate has been getting a real workout,” she said.
Teams of volunteers have been greeting supporters with chants and high-fives as they arrive at the million-strong city’s airport and main train station, while guides have been deployed throughout the centre.
Britain’s deputy ambassador to Russia, Lindsay Skoll, and Greg Clarke, chairman of the Football Association, laid wreaths in Volgograd’s Hall of Military Glory to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad.
“I think what this (wreath laying) demonstrates more than anything is that the enduring nature of the relationship between the UK and Volgograd outweighs any political ups and downs,” Skoll said.
The memorial complex to the battle includes The Motherland Calls, an 85-metre statue of a woman stepping forward with a raised sword that was once the tallest construction of its kind in the world.
– The only thing missing –
The friendly noises from both sides are a long way from the clashes between Russia and England fans in Marseille during Euro 2016, which left two people in a coma and others seriously injured.
Both Russian and British authorities are determined to avoid a repeat of the violence, with London confiscating the passports of more than 1,000 known hooligans before the World Cup and Moscow clamping down on those with a history of troublemaking.
Russian police said Monday they had charged two English supporters with drunkenness and removed them from a train to Volgograd after an incident in which one of the men cut himself on a carriage door.
A British embassy representative told AFP its staff were ready to offer consular assistance to the supporter and were in touch with Russian authorities.
Luc Jones of the Football Supporters’ Federation, in Volgograd for the game, said fears of violence might have kept some England supporters away.
“But it’s partly because the team has been so crap. When we lost to Iceland (in 2016) there were a lot of people who said they weren’t going to spend their money going to see them anymore.”
The 45-year-old praised the Russian organisers but lamented the lack of turnout for his side, as Tunisia’s flag-draped supporters made their presence felt.
“The only thing missing is the England fans,” he said.