Gareth Southgate's side have got a lot of supporters from the host country wishing them well at the tournament
England proving a hit with Russia's football fans at World Cup 2018
War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, Master and Margarita, Anna Karenika. Russia has been the setting for some of the world’s best creative literature and this year has been no different.
“Welcome to HELL," read one newspaper headline. "Russian ultras pledge to spill English fans’ BLOOD at World Cup 2018”. Another upped the ante: “BAD BLOOD: Russian football hooligans warn England fans ‘Prepare to DIE’”. Switching the rhetoric, there was also: “British Hooligans Promise ‘World War Three’ at Fifa World Cup”.
The fear-mongering ahead of this summer’s tournament — prompted by ugly clashes between England and Russia fans at the European Championships in France two years ago — was accompanied by a warning from the British Foreign Office.
It resulted in many English supporters choosing to follow the football from afar. Yet a curious thing has been apparent this past month: Those English fans brave enough to make the trip have not only found delightful hospitality, there are also plenty Russians actively supporting the Three Lions.
Evgeny Soer, a 26 year-old, watched Gareth Southgate’s side play Tunisia last month from inside the Fifa Fan Fest in Rostov-on-Don.
Powerfully built, shouting in the local language, and wearing a football jersey, he appeared the archetypal Russian hooligan. Yet his jersey was an England shirt and he had a tattooed lion inked on his inner forearm.
When Harry Kane scored a last-minute header, Soer celebrated with all the passion of a man from Reading rather than Rostov.
“I am from here, but I support England and only England,” he said emphatically after the final whistle. “If Russia were to play England in the World Cup, I would support England — and I would be very happy at the end of the game too because they would win.”
Soer is by no means an anomaly. Nikita Kuznetsova, 17, also cheers for Kane and Co. He will travel to Cambridge for two weeks later this year to study English, but has supported the national team since 2012, mainly because of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, who he called “legends of the game”.
He never expected trouble and was surprised by the negative media coverage.
“I did not think there would be any problems,” he said, although conceded he deliberately did not wear anything to show his allegiance.
“Russia and England are two big countries and both very passionate, which I think is a good thing. Of course they took it too far in France, but I think it was only the crazy people fighting. This summer, I’ve met a few England fans and they have always been very nice.”
Down in Volgograd, where the Tunisia game was held, the manager of Harat’s Pub, Sascha Lomakin, is still, more than three weeks later, showing videos of that night on his phone.
The videos depict a bar filled with people waving St George’s Crosses and Russian tricolours and bouncing to the chant of “It’s Coming Home”. It was a joyous moment for Lomakin, who had worried when England’s team came to town.
"I saw all the negative media and got very upset,” said Lomakin. “I have friends from Manchester and London and hoped to see them here, but they wrote and said they wouldn’t come because it was too dangerous. I didn’t understand it at all. We love the English people and the culture — in our bar we even celebrate St George’s Day. We’re very similar in many ways, so why would we want to fight?”
Since the tournament started, he has been in contact with his English friends once again and proudly sent them the videos. “When they see these things about how Russian people are welcoming the English now they regret not coming,” he added.
With England on course to potentially meet Russia in the semi-finals, the potential for further creative writing is clear.
Yet Mikael Mamedov, an enormous shaven-headed Moscovite, has attended all of England’s games so far and hopes that if England reach the final four tomorrow night, his city will experience an influx of English.
“I have loved English football since 1986.” he said. “I fell in love with England at the Mexico World Cup; guys like Peter Shilton and Gary Lineker. The English media are always creating problems, but what happened in 2016 needs to be forgotten.
"It was a good lesson for the Russian government and now everything is secured by the police. There is no chance of any trouble, so I really hope many more English fans visit. We are waiting for them with open arms.”