Three Lions fans warm to Ukraine

English supporter numbers are rising in Kiev, along with the expectations for their team

In the sweaty heat of summer Kiev evenings, the tournament in which we were not to have any of the usual expectations around the England team is becoming the tournament in which we might just have them after all.

On the central Khreshchatyk Avenue an amphitheatre of Stalin-era buildings has been turned into a vast fanzone for the duration of the tournament, The quarter-final games shown on its big screens finish close to midnight, but the £1.50 pints keep flowing long afterwards, and there is an atmosphere of general bonhomie as England fans mix with the locals and sing football chants. The last of the four quarter-finals, in which England meet Italy in the city's Olympic Stadium, will be played tonight, and expectations are building as the big match approaches.

There are still not the tens of thousands of England fans that have been present at previous tournaments, kept away by tricky logistics and worries over violence. However, the few thousand who made it out for England's group games are being joined by hundreds more who flew out once England reached the knock-out stages.

"We got the tickets at face value from the Uefa site after the group stages, and spent about £450 on flights to get out here," said David Alan, 31, from London. He and his friends had originally decided to sit this tournament out, after spending a fortune in South Africa in 2010, only to see an unconvincing England hammered by the Germans in Bloemfontein. "In the end we decided we had to be here, though," he said. "I'm not expecting us to win the tournament, but even if we don't have a great footballing side, I like the spirit about the team at the moment."

There is anger among England fans about the way Ukraine was portrayed in the media prior to the tournament, with concerns about racism and violence most visibly aired in a BBC Panorama documentary. "The coverage was a disgrace. There is no violence in Ukraine and we've had an amazing welcome," said Ryan Jones from Liverpool, who has been in the country for the duration of the tournament.

Racism and violence do exist in Ukraine – the footage in the Panorama programme was real, and African students in Kiev have horror stories to tell. Just yesterday, the organiser of Kiev gay pride was hospitalised after receiving a savage beating from a group of locals and there is often fan violence at the country's stadiums during domestic league matches. But during the Euros this has all taken a back seat, and the biggest trouble has been with Russian fans in Poland, which is co-hosting the tournament.

Kiev locals say it is a shame that England fans were given the impression that Ukraine was a wild place where savage locals were waiting to beat them up as they got off the plane. The front cover of Korrespondent, one of Ukraine's leading political magazines, this week features a crossed-out photograph of a bear with the words: "There are no bears walking the streets here." It's a play on the idea that fans arriving in Kiev were expecting a third world hellhole and were pleasantly surprised to find a beautiful city with lots of sunshine, great cafes and bars and a relaxed pace of life. Oleg Voloshin, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said that there had been a "provocative campaign to discredit Ukraine" among the British media, but that fans' experiences had meant that it had failed.

"The English have this look in their eyes when they arrive," said Anatoly, a driver who ferries fans from the airport to the city. "The Swedes and other nationalities looked like they were here to have fun, but the English have this feeling of terror – you can see that they think they've come to Afghanistan or something. I don't know why, but they are the only ones who are like that."

As expectations about Ukraine were pleasantly exceeded, so expectations about the team are also growing.

"I fancy us to beat Italy, I'm already looking at how to get to Warsaw next week," said Robert Hound, an England fan from London. If England do make it past the Italians tonight, they will face a formidable Germany side in the Polish capital on Thursday evening. "The Germans look lethal but for once we're having a bit of luck. If that continues, who knows, maybe we can go all the way."

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