VOLGOGRAD, Russia: England fans arriving in the Russian city of Volgograd Monday for their team’s first World Cup fixture received a warm welcome, despite ice-cold relations between the two countries and the memory of violence at Euro 2016.
Turnout for the side was expected to be low for the match, with less than 2,000 tickets sold to fans coming from Britain, according to England’s Football Supporters’ Federation.
Gareth Southgate’s men will take on Tunisia in the southern 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.
“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 morning 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 riverside city for match day.
Meanwhile 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.—AFP