England fans began to trickle into Volgograd on Sunday as the Russian city that bears the weight of World War II history offered a warm welcome before hosting its first World Cup match.
The Volgograd Arena stands on one of the major battlefields of the war — two million people died in the battle named after the city’s former title of Stalingrad.
On Sunday, excitement built as Monday’s Group G encounter between England and Tunisia approached.
There had been concern that Volgograd could be a flashpoint because of its historical importance to Russia and the risk of potentially provocative behaviour by England fans.
Two years ago at Euro 2016 there were violent clashes involving England supporters sparked by Russian fans in the French city of Marseille.
Most of the 5,000 England fans expected for the match were thought to be arriving early Monday morning.
Only a handful emerged from Volgograd station on Sunday afternoon from the Moscow train after its 20-hour journey south.
“Officially through the FA (Football Association), England fans have bought 2,200 tickets for this game.
But we expect a few more have got some in the neutral sections,” Thomas Concannon of England’s Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF) told AFP.
“I doubt if anyone will come here without a ticket because they were still on sale and England hadn’t sold out their allocation.”
– Low turnout –
He played down fears of trouble, with the England fan turnout expected to be much lower than during the European Championship in France two years ago, and security tight.
“In comparison to previous tournaments it is quite a light turnout because England always travel well, take 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 to a tournament,” said Concannon.
“This is quite low. They’ve been put off by the prices. It is not a cheap trip. And it is not an easy place to get to.”
England manager Gareth Southgate believes the game will pass off peacefully. Twenty years ago in Marseille, there were running battles between fans when these two teams last met in the World Cup.
“There have been a lot of stories leading into the tournament which have put people off coming,” Southgate said Sunday.
“We don’t see any dangers, everyone can see the security around the tournament.”
And Southgate paid tribute to the fans who had made the long, expensive journey to the city, which now takes its name from the Volga river.
“We’re really grateful to those who are travelling. It gives us a huge lift to see the fans in the stadium.
“I’ve met many of them and lots have stories from tournaments going way back.
Sometimes those good people following us are overlooked at the expense of some of the guys who have caused problems in the past.
“I don’t expect that to be an issue this time.”
The new Volgograd Arena, where Monday’s match will take place, is overlooked by the famous 85-metre-high Mamayev Kurgan, or “Motherland Calls” monument, the tallest statue in Europe.
“We are hoping it does go as smoothly as it should and the world’s press will write about a great football tournament and nothing negative,” said FSF spokesman Luc Jones.
The mayor of Volgograd, Andrei Kosalapov, said: “We have had no trouble from England fans and we do not expect any. Volgograd is a city of peace.”