World Cup fans in Russia agree ‘this is nothing like I expected’

Visitors to Russia’s host cities have responded to the local warmth and pride

 England fans celebrating victory over Panama at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium on June 24th. Photograph:  Alex Morton/Getty Images

England fans celebrating victory over Panama at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium on June 24th. Photograph: Alex Morton/Getty Images

 

And so the tear gas did not explode. The Russian ultras – the beefy, skinhead ghosts of Marseilles – stayed at home. The vague idea of how it would be “over there” – rows of heavily-armed security forces juggling Kalashnikovs and pissed-off Alsatian dogs with a severe allergy to liberals standing between the terrified visiting fans and the hordes of Russian thugs waiting to rip their heads off in the name of VI Lenin – could not have been further from the truth.

How did this happen? Nobody is fully sure. Everyone is in general agreement that President Putin put the word out that he wanted no aggro – but in Russian, of course.

Everyone was agreed that Vlad had personally called around to see all the leading football hooligans in Moscow, cracked open a Nevskoe, maybe had a quick arm wrestle and made Russia’s ‘ardest men promise that, hilarious as Marseilles had been, there would be no repeat in Samara, in Volgograd or around the Luhzniki.

It was just a further manifestation of absolute control: when the tsar wants the sea calm then it is calm. So on the streets the Russian police could not be any more chilled if they had spent the afternoon sipping champagne.

And it was the guys with truncheons – Russia’s version of Enid Blyton’s amicable Bobby – rather than the guys with the heavy artillery who you saw in the metro stations and on the streets; a presence but a fairly unobtrusive presence.

And you told yourself that all of this was just an illusion: that if the South American football fans – whose compulsion to sing loudly and continuously when in groups of four or more is beyond control – come back to Russia this winter and start up with their isn’t-life-great malarkey they’ll find themselves bruised, hungry and reading Solzhenitsyn under the bleak rays of a 40-watt light bulb. And they might just make it home before Messi retires.

Host cities

Everyone knows that what’s going on in the streets of the host cities isn’t the “real” Russia. But still: it was hard to get away from the fact that it felt real.

“Nothing like I expected.” That’s the phrase you hear over and over again from visitors from every continent.

The meeting of England and Belgium in Kaliningrad on Thursday night was billed as a potential flashpoint. What is Russian right-wing hooliganism if not an ode to the darker impulses of English football – and society – in the 1980s? It was from England’s internationally feared thugs that the Russians took their inspiration. And what could be more attractive to England’s Bovver boys than the idea of invading Russia across the Polish border, pouring into Russia’s Baltic sentry in the name of St George?

It was 30 degrees and cloudless on the day of the match; the kind of day in which concentrated beer-pounding can quickly lead to trouble.

By Thursday afternoon the England fans had set up a kind of base camp in the pubs around Victory Square in Kaliningrad, draping their flags over the railings; the Hull lot, the Scunthorpe crew, Leeds and so on. They sang Rule Britannia. And very quickly they became the chief attraction in Kaliningrad. Locals stopped for photographs in front of this vivid montage of Englishness: everything they’d seen and read about for one day only in their town.

As has been the case in every city, the organisation on match day was like clockwork. From 4pm on lines and lines of fan coaches were waiting to ferry the fans out to the stadium. But because it was such a lovely evening many opted to walk; you just follow a red line through the city streets which takes you down by the river, past Konigsberg cathedral.

A few England fans stopped in to visit the grave of Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher who was buried here and who’d probably have a few strong opinions on Neymar Junior.

Optimistic

On the way out a few bands – rock and string instrumentals – had started playing on the street, just to entertain the fans. And there is no getting around it: the England fans behaved impeccably. They were just there to enjoy the city and the occasion: to have a good time and bask in the weird sensation of being optimistic that this time in a major tournament it might just go okay for Dear Old Blighty.

And maybe the dregs of England’s football fans have been filtered out but it’s hard not to feel that there hasn’t been a shift: that the days of wilding out are largely over.

There’s a long, chilling account in Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs about the scenes in Sardinia when England met Holland during Italia 1990. England had been placed on the island because of the fans’ reputation: it was hot and nowhere was selling alcohol and the crowd was sullen and bored: it was, Buford wrote, “the largest gathering of sober English males I have ever seen in my life”.

Because of that a kind of protest march was planned, which started peacefully but gradually escalated into a full-on riot, ending in a vicious baton attack by the Italian police. Buford reckoned there might have been 4,000 on that march, including himself. He had spent the previous seven years running with some of the most notorious figures in English football vandalism in the hope of discovering what made them tick, what was behind it all, only to conclude that it was about nothing other than a lust for violence: that it didn’t mean anything.

England went to the World Cup semi-finals that summer. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Gareth Southgate’s team will emulate that feat. If they do the fans will be nothing to worry about.

Few drams

It was clear in Kaliningrad that the locals were enjoying the presence of the visiting English. Nobody was predicting that last January. The match was a dud but no matter: the night was warm and the locals were taking advantage of the new dispensation; having a few drams on the street, enjoying the music and the novelty of a big international football night in their town.

At some point you reach an intersection between the exercise in smooth, state-managed presentation that has made the World Cup such a surface success and the genuine pride of the Russian people in their locality and in their country. Despite the language, despite the international stereotypes and preconceptions, there has been a warmth. That’s what visitors have responded to.

The tournament will end; the football hordes will depart. Winter will come, and the party will stop for the Russians. But like England just now, the hosts don’t want this to end.

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