Something has happened at the World Cup and it goes beyond goalkeeping errors. The England fan – that much-feared smirking lout best kept the opposite side of a riot shield – has been transformed. In South Africa, he is a gent and though he still orders pints, he is likely to be seen with a plate of tapas on the side.
Hedge fund trader Mark Thomson, 33, was delicately tucking into a light lunch at Cape Town's Wafu restaurant yesterday, watching the sun sparkle on the Atlantic in the posh Mouille Point area. "England fans? I haven't seen many. There was a bit of chanting at the Waterfront shopping centre earlier. But generally everyone is very quiet and well-behaved," he said.
Thomson has come from London with a friend to see three matches in nine days, including tonight's England clash with Algeria. It will also be attended by Princes William and Harry, the cast of a new BBC drama Outcasts being filmed in Cape Town and Boris Johnson, the London mayor.
Chief Supt Dave Lewis, one of 12 British police officers at the World Cup, confirmed that memories of cities trashed in honour of the Cross of Saint George seem distant. "The England fans here are really nice people. They are not the type of people who go to football matches on Saturday afternoons at home," he said. "I don't really know how to put it, but let's say the big difference with Germany in 2006 is that Ryanair and EasyJet don't fly to South Africa and that explains why we are not seeing that category of supporter – the under 25 male who drinks too much and behaves anti-socially."
South African immigration officials have suggested that enhanced border controls have kept troublemakers out. One Briton and 11 Argentinians have so far been denied entry.
But fans point to a range of factors triggering the genteel mood. "The cost of getting here – at least £3,000 – and the planning it has taken both explain a lot," said Steven Rodgers, who is treating himself to the trip after 28 years' service in the Royal Navy.
His travelling companion, Kevin Perrin, a technical surveyor of lifeboats from Stockton-on-Tees, said the South African World Cup seemed to be attracting a different kind of fan from the young, tattoo-covered males who over the years have given England a bad name.
"You see people travelling with their partners. They are having a holiday at the same time, seeing the sights. The fans are quite a bit older than I had expected. I suppose the young lads cannot get the four or five weeks off from work that we will need if England get through the group stages."
Thomson and his friend, Nigel Suddell, 32, are staying with friends. But they have spent more than £600 each on tickets. Suddell, a mobile phone technology expert from Sunningdale, Berks, said: "The prices are the same as in London. The atmosphere is great because people really love football."
However, he left his jacket in a bar the other night and didn't get it back. "But that would have happened in any country," he said. Football Supporters' Federation spokesman Kevin Miles confirmed that few fans have seen evidence of South Africa's record crime rate. "We have seen a couple of phones go and the odd wallet."
Mr Miles's federation – in collaboration with the Foreign Office – offers support and information to the 11,000 England fans who bought their tickets through the Football Association.
On arrival in South Africa, each receives a free SIM card from phone company sponsor MTN and, thus, access to text messages covering traffic and weather conditions.
He said Johannesburg's gridlock and Rustenburg's remoteness have stood in the way of England fans gathering in large numbers and getting drunk.
But he warned that this might change in Cape Town. "It is more like a European city – more what we're used to. Fans will be meeting in bars and walking to the stadium in groups. In Rustenburg last week, there were not too many places to gather. Everyone spent all their time getting there and trying to leave," said Mr Miles.
The World Cup is also quiet because international ticket sales have been so poor, prompting millions of rand's worth of seats to be given away. The Fifa Fan Fest – a free open-air event in the centre of Cape Town – has been busy for South African matches, but sparsely attended on other days. An indoor music and football festival called Cool Britannia at the Cape Town Convention Centre has also been met with little interest due to the £15 entry price. A group of fans outside the event yesterday said they would not go in, and headed off to a city centre bar to watch South Korea playing Argentina. Around town, a red double-decker sponsored by The Sun newspaper shuttles England fans about. The slogan on the back: "Maybe, just maybe" seems to fit the rather tame mood.
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