Over the years, regular travellers with England have had good reason to become sceptical about some of the dire warnings about the fate that could befall us at the next tournament.
If all we were told had been true, we would have been murdered in townships in South Africa, beaten up by racist hooligans in Ukraine or robbed at gunpoint in Brazilian favelas. It turns out that a little bit of common sense and preparation has generally been enough to keep us safe.
But never before has the disparity between the picture painted of what was likely to befall us and the reality we actually encountered been as great as what we experienced in Volgograd.
From the hundreds of England fans we have talked to, we have heard story after story of acts of generosity and hospitality from local people, reflecting a real willingness to get to know us. The people of Volgograd made the most of the fact that there has been a rare influx of significant numbers of foreigners into their city, a place with an incredible history but which has never been what you could honestly describe as a centre for tourism.
That warm welcome has produced, as you would expect, so many positive encounters between the people of Volgograd, England fans, and visiting supporters from numerous other nations – one of the most enduring and endearing features of any World Cup. The idea of any hostility between the people of Russia and visiting football fans from England has been decisively disproved.
Volgograd deals with its own troubled past brilliantly, through the superb museum of the battle for Stalingrad and the magnificent Mamayev Kurgan statue and memorial, and England fans have both respected and learnt from their visits to them, developing a new understanding of our common history.
So much else that some media reports might have led us to believe has also been unfounded. Food and drink has been reasonably priced, and of good quality; most people have found affordable accommodation; taxis have been generally accessible and great value; the stadium was top quality, with the systems around it for entry thorough and secure without being congested or difficult; and the policing has been visible but unobtrusive, not remotely intimidating.
The vicious attacks by highly trained hooligans that we witnessed in Marseille and have heard so much about constantly ever since have been conspicuous by their absence, so far at least.
The only sad thing about the whole experience is that the numbers of England fans who have been here to enjoy it have been so low: we reckon it’s been probably the lowest number of England fans at a World Cup game for thirty years.
We know there are a lot of other reasons why a lot of people have chosen to support the team from back home – there’s the distances, the cost of travel, the inescapable fact that Russia isn’t really traditional family holiday destination – but it’s nonetheless a shame that some fans have been deterred from coming here because of disproportionate hype about the hooligan threat or political tensions.
The big majority of Russian people have been immensely friendly, generous and welcoming. England fans above all should know from bitter experience the price that can be paid for judging everybody on the behaviour of a minority.
This article first appeared in Free Lions edition 158 – get your copy of the England fanzine here. Thanks to Alexxx Malev for the image used in this blog, reproduced under Creative Commons licence.