England fans arriving in the Russian city of Volgograd Monday for their team's first World Cup fixture received a warm welcome, despite ice-cold relations between the two countries and the memory of violence at Euro 2016. Turnout for the side was expected to be low for the match, with less than 2,000 tickets sold to fans coming from Britain, according to England's Football Supporters' Federation. Gareth Southgate's men will take on Tunisia in the southern city formerly known as Stalingrad, site of World War II's bloodiest battle where almost two million people lost their lives.
The draw comes as ties between Moscow and London reach lows not seen since the Cold War, following the poisoning of the former double agent Sergei Skripal along with his daughter in England, as well as accusations of Russian interference in the Brexit referendum.
But London-born Camilla Croxton, in Russia for the first time for the tournament, had only kind words for the country and the locals she had met.
"I went in with low expectations but Russia has blown my mind," the 28-year-old NGO worker told AFP.
"Volgograd has a really small-town vibe. People will come up to me and try to speak English, even if their English isn't the best. Google Translate has been getting a real workout," she said.
Teams of volunteers have been greeting supporters with chants and high-fives as they arrive at the million-strong city's airport and main train station, while guides have been deployed throughout the centre.
"We were under the impression we would be constantly under attack. Before we got here we were worried, my family was worried," said 27-year-old Jordan Price as he enjoyed a morning beer with two friends on a bar terrace.
The trio, however, said locals had even offered them help in buying insect repellent to protect against the swarms of midges that had descended on the riverside city for match day.
Meanwhile Britain's deputy ambassador to Russia, Lindsay Skoll, and Greg Clarke, chairman of the Football Association, laid wreaths in Volgograd's Hall of Military Glory to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad.
"I think what this (wreath laying) demonstrates more than anything is that the enduring nature of the relationship between the UK and Volgograd outweighs any political ups and downs," Skoll said.
The memorial complex to the battle includes the statue The Motherland Calls, an 85-metre sculpture of a woman stepping forward with a raised sword that was once the tallest construction of its kind in the world.
- The only thing missing -
The friendly noises from both sides are a long way from the clashes between Russia and England fans in Marseille during the 2016 European championship, which left two people in a coma and others seriously injured.
Both Russian and British authorities are determined to avoid a repeat of the violence, with London confiscating the passports of more than 1,000 known hooligans before the World Cup and Moscow clamping down on those with a history of troublemaking at games.
Two British men were reportedly removed from a train to Volgograd Monday after an altercation with a police officer.
A British embassy representative told AFP its staff were in contact with Russian authorities "regarding a British man who was detained following an incident on a train" and were ready to offer him consular assistance.
Luc Jones of the Football Supporters' Federation, in Volgograd for the game, said fears of violence might have kept some England supporters away.
"But it's partly because the team has been so crap. When we lost to Iceland (in 2016) there were a lot of people who said they weren't going to spend their money going to see them anymore."
The 45-year-old praised the Russian organisers but lamented the lack of turnout for his side, as Tunisia and its flag-draped supporters made their presence felt.
"The only thing missing is the England fans," he said.