Volgograd (Russia) (AFP) – Memories of fan violence hung over England’s first Word Cup match in the Russian city of Volgograd on Monday but these were all but forgotten after Harry Kane’s injury-time winning goal against Tunisia.
On top of the 2-1 result, fans said they had been given a warm welcome in the southern city despite ice-cold relations between Moscow and London.
“I didn’t want it to be so easy that we were walking over them,” said Jonathan Phillips, from London and in Russia for the first time, after it looked like the match would end in a draw until the last minute.
“Everybody in Russia has been really welcoming, everything they say about the country doesn’t apply,” the 50-year-old nurse told AFP.
“People in England said don’t go, you won’t come back, but it’s been great,” he added as flag-draped England fans chanted Harry Kane’s name outside the 45,000-seater stadium.
Uzi Alan, a 28-year-old banker from London, echoed the sentiment.
“We started well and then we slowed down a bit, but it was amazing how we finished,” he said.
“The people here have been amazing too here — really friendly, great culture, great football.”
Hosts and visitors were largely on their best behaviour, but two drunk England supporters were taken off a train on their way to Volgograd and charged with minor offences.
Russian police said one of the men was taken to hospital following an incident that saw him cut himself on a carriage door.
Turnout for England was low for the match, with less than 2,000 tickets sold to fans coming from Britain, according to England’s Football Supporters’ Federation. Fans of the side were vastly outnumbered by Tunisians in the stadium and the fanzone earlier in the day.
– Swarms of bugs –
The match came as ties between Russia and Britain 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 the mood in the city formerly known as Stalingrad was upbeat despite thick swarms of midges and mosquitoes that fans described as “awful” and which have proved a hazard to visiting TV correspondents doing live reports.
Insects are regular summer visitors in Volgograd but locals told AFP the problem was worse than normal this season, even though authorities had sprayed insecticide on areas around the city and used repellent in popular spots.
To boost spirits, teams of volunteers greeted supporters with chants and high-fives as they arrived at the city’s airport and main train station, while guides were deployed throughout the centre.
– Stalingrad tribute –
In the morning 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, in which almost two million people died.
“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 statue The Motherland Calls, an 85-metre sculpture of a woman stepping forward with a raised sword that was once the tallest construction of its kind in the world.
The friendly noises from both sides are a long way from the clashes between Russia and England fans in Marseille during the 2016 European championship, which left two people in a coma and others seriously injured.
Both Russian and British authorities were 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 at games.