World Cup 2018: Delirious England fans bond with Russians over vodka, but leave locals bemused with IRA chants

Three Lions dare to dream after 6-1 victory over Panama

Oliver Carroll
Nizhny Novgorod
Monday 25 June 2018 07:19 BST
Fans celebrate England World Cup goal at Isle of Wight festival

As the scorched pink flesh of the English descended down the slope from Nizhny Novgorod’s Kremlin, the seat of the local government, a group of four bare-chested men made the boldest of predictions.

“5-0,” they said. “Easy.”

Not since diplomat Anthony Jenkinson arrived to work on a trading mission here 460 years ago had Nizhny seen the English so confident. But little did anyone know at the time, the sunburnt men would be accurately predicting only the half-time score in England’s 6-1 rout of Panama.

England fans should probably know better, but judging by the mood in Russia, some of them are daring to dream. And it can’t come much better than a record World Cup win.

“It’s all about hope, innit?” said Alan Sutton, a 59-year-old postman from north London, who has attended every World Cup since 1998, as he puffed on a cigarette. “That’s why you come here. Why I come here. It’s just a fantastic feeling, hoping it’s gonna to be better than last time.”

On the bus outside the stadium, the windows reverberated to the sounds of that future hope: “Oh-o-oh England’s gone to Russia – Oh-o-oh drinking all the vodka – Oh-o-oh England’s going all the way.” Less impressive were the sounds of England’s past sectarian struggles – “No surrender to the IRA” – which locals ignored without understanding why they were right to.

England fans chant on the streets of Nizhny Novgorod ahead of their match against Panama
England fans chant on the streets of Nizhny Novgorod ahead of their match against Panama (Reuters)

On the evidence so far, this tournament stands out. The favourites have all faltered. The teams to fear are Russia, Mexico, Switzerland and Senegal as much as Brazil, Argentina, Spain and Portugal. England are one of few to have truly impressed. They have also been handed what on paper seems a relatively straightforward play-off with the leaders of Group H, likely to be either Senegal or Japan.

England can now fear no one, said Matt Rooley, 44, aka “Ra-ra”, who had travelled to the game with his friend Geoff Gibbs, 54, aka “Rasputin” – both names emblazoned across the back of their blood-red England away shirts.

“Just getting out of the group makes a nice change,” said Mr Gibbs, who believed the quarter-finals were a realistic hope. “We have an organised, young, practical team, and are playing under a manager with tactical nous.”

Debbie Marriott, 57, a prison officer from the Midlands, agreed: “Quarters, definitely. We’re finally looking like we’re going to live up to our promise.”

Ms Marriott, who had travelled to the game with her husband Paul, also a prison officer, said that England were better organised than at any time in her recent memory.

“It’s the corners, that’s where I see the difference,” she says. “Before they wouldn’t even get in the box, now they are getting dangerous. Oh, happy days!”

The Marriotts found it disappointing that seemingly so few of their compatriots had made it to Russia – the consequence of “a tabloid scare campaign”, Paul said.

He was right. In the stadium, the English were heavily outnumbered by Panama supporters. Men and women from a country with the population the size of inner London had travelled in huge numbers halfway across the globe to get here.

Fans celebrate England World Cup goal at Isle of Wight festival

England’s red-and-white army had many Russians to thank that the stadium was not more heavily tilted against them.

Three of them were Nizhny locals – Alexei Kostenko 30, Dmitry Voronin, 31, and Andrei Ulanov, 34. All were kitted out in the colours of St George. They had, they said, supported England since 1994. To them, it is “the home of football”.

“There are lots of us, and we don’t understand why so few have come to the World Cup from England,” Mr Kostenko said. “We think that it’s time to trust the English team. We’ve all waited too long.”

What seems less clear is how much the progress of the England team can be measured by a victory against such weak opposition.

“We haven’t met the scary guys yet,” says Ms Marriott.

The 16th-century diplomat Jenkinson might also have had a few words of caution for his present-day compatriots. As soon as the early pioneer of trade secured a meeting with the man who mattered – Ivan the Terrible – his plans for a comprehensive treaty were resolutely kicked into touch.

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