After five weeks of near-hysteria from Newquay to Newcastle, the 'It's coming home' bandwagon has finally reached Russia - writes Nick Ames.
The sight behind Robin Olsen’s goal showed exactly how much this meant. Dele Alli had just put his side on the verge of the last four and the small, massed pocket of England fans were deep in the throes of the kind of celebration their nation does so well: flailing limbs, cascading bodies, non-alcoholic pints of Budweiser flung into the air, pure disbelief blended with raw ecstasy.
It was an intense, concentrated burst of joy, perhaps all the more remarkable because travelling supporters from England were so few in number. The rest of Samara Arena, barring a similarly compacted pocket of silent Swedes, applauded contentedly enough but it was a far cry from the diffuse, multi-coloured celebrations it had seen nine days previously.
That afternoon, Colombia had beaten Senegal in front of a crowd that seemed at least half South American, yellow shirts springing up en-masse in all four tribunes as Yerry Mina headed the winner. The party continued into the evening; Samara felt like a mini Medellin and, to most locals, the sensation could not have been more welcome.
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That partly explains why, when England and Colombia met in the round of 16, the vast majority of patrons inside Samara’s famous ‘Na Dnye’ bar were compelled to cheer on Jose Pekerman’s side. Had Colombia pulled through, their army of followers would have returned for another carnival in the quarter-finals and the city was eager for more.
It is not to say anyone was vehemently anti-England; that would be a gross misconception. But if a World Cup is as much a celebration of how football can unite people off the pitch as it is a competition on it, the role they have occupied thus far has been relatively minimal.
Of course, that will change over the coming days as supporters book trains, planes and automobiles to carry them to Moscow and – in the worst case – St Petersburg, where the final and third place play-off will be held respectively. Russia’s capital city is a vast place that can swallow a visitor whole, but its central areas will be touched by a belated English influx and, at last, some of the euphoria surrounding Gareth Southgate’s side will infect the host nation.
For all the ‘It’s coming home’ memes and mounting excitement back home, in Russia the England team is generally viewed as just another of the four semi-finalists, neither highly favoured nor disliked.
There are extremes, of course: on Sunday night this correspondent was accosted in another Samara venue by a local fan who raged furiously about the English media’s portrayal of his country and made it perfectly clear that he wished for the national team’s campaign to meet a bitter end; on the next table sat two Russian supporters wearing England shirts, both taking up the Three Lions’ cause after their own side had been eliminated.
Upon learning the nationality of their passenger, taxi drivers begin conversations with “Harry Kane!”; they will just as easily discuss the merits of Kylian Mbappe or Eden Hazard, though, and there is no special sympathy for the fact England could be on the verge of an epochal triumph five days from now.
None of that is to do England down. It is just that they have been on the edge of the party, supporters trickling in cautiously and generally confining themselves to the cities in which the team has played, while the side itself has not taken part in any of the tournament’s most memorable matches. One of the most remarkable things about the Sweden match was the low-key atmosphere and lack of dramatic tension, which of course owed plenty to a professional and authoritative job done on the pitch. It did not, in most ways, feel like a quarter-final; that is why the wild celebrations from those few thousand England fans were such a curious anomaly.
Gareth Southgate lookalike
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Now, though, the atmosphere around England will step up a few notches. As many as 10,000 more supporters are expected to arrive for the semi-final with Croatia and none of the other semi-finalists, all European and all backed in similarly modest numbers over the past month, will be followed in the same way.
If responses to the tens of thousands of Latin American fans over the past 26 days are anything to go by, it is England’s chance to earn a huge dose of local goodwill and a groundswell of support as anticipation reaches fever pitch.
“The England team is an example of professionalism,” an article on the Russian website Sport Express said this week. They have made an impact among local media and organisers with their openness, low-maintenance approach and willingness to engage.
Perhaps that is the paradox of England’s World Cup so far: success that has caused near-hysteria from Newquay to Newcastle has taken place far away in such a low-key, quietly way.
It is not the kind of thing that makes a team the tournament’s darlings but, as the clusters of England flags, banners and replica shirts mushroom in number between now and the weekend, the enthusiasm might just be contagious.