Dressed in England shirts and brandishing a St George's flag, they also had the sunburn, the shaved heads and the swagger to match. But when these presumed members of the Barmy Army, spotted necking pints in a bar in Donetsk, were asked how they were enjoying Ukraine, they looked confused. One of them eventually answered: "Eeeengland! Yes! England win very big!" Although the quartet were all diehard England fans, it turned out that all four were Donetsk natives, and none of them had set foot in England.
They are part of a surprisingly large legion of Ukrainians who have got behind Roy Hodgson's men at the Euro 2012 tournament, even though England play in the same group as the co-hosts, Ukraine. The support seems mainly to stem from an interest in Premier League football, which is shown on Ukrainian television and has led many locals to adopt the Three Lions as a second, or in some cases, a first loyalty.
It is not only a love of English club football that draws some Ukrainians, however. Natalia, a 19-year-old student from Kiev, said she loves England because of the star striker who will finally make his tournament debut tomorrow.
"I love Rooney, he's such a great footballer and he has such a nice face," she said. "You can tell he's a real English gentleman." There appears to be an equally implausible attitude to the formbook among Ukraine's army of England fans. "I can't see anyone winning it except England," said Anatoly from Donetsk, taking the traditional English quality of overexpectation to levels that even the country's own fans have not managed on this occasion. "England are so strong, who else could match them."
The affinity for England is strong in Donetsk, the eastern mining city where England take on Ukraine in the decisive group-stage fixture. This is partly down to the city's history. It was founded in the 19th century as a mining centre by John Hughes, a Welshman from Merthyr Tydfil. And perhaps unschooled in the history of English-Welsh rivalries, many natives say its only understandable that with such a founder, they should support the England national team. The biggest nightclub in the city is called Liverpool, and punters enter it from underneath a "You'll never walk alone" sign.
Only an implausible defeat for France against Sweden could make the progression of both England and Ukraine possible, and so tomorrow will be the time to decide where the real allegiances lie.
Vitaly Chubenko, 43, from Kharkiv, said it was a tough choice. "It's like home relations – you want a wife and a mistress, but sometimes you have to choose. England's like my exciting young mistress, and I'm happier when I'm with her, but for the sake of appearances and loyalty, I guess I have to stick with my old and tedious wife, Ukraine."Reuse content