Changing times: England fans in Russia

England fans in russia photo david shaw 21

Tonight the Fans for Diversity campaign and Free Lions are launching an exhibition of work by David Shaw celebrating the England fans' contribution to the World Cup in Russia. Here England fan and tournament veteran Billy Grant tells us about a special summer...

Russia was a funny World Cup for me. As a black football fan, I realized that going to Russia could pose a serious risk to my safety.

But I still ended up going. Why?

Prior to this event, I had been to thirteen tournaments - 6 World Cups and 7 European Championships. I would have liked to have made it 14. But hearing news of how potentially unwelcoming Russia was, I wasn’t overly desperate.

Bearing in mind Japan 2002 was such a fantastic tournament, the general consensus amongst the travelling contingent was it would never be beaten.

So missing Russia wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Since Japan, I had threatened to ‘boycott’ to a couple of competitions. Germany 2006 I nearly didn’t go to due to prospect of trouble. Ukraine 2012 I almost missed out because of the fear of far right Ukranian hooligans.

I don’t think my fears were unfounded for both competitions.

As it turns out, they were both great tournaments. Really friendly and well organized with in both cases the whole country embracing the event – not just the hard-core football fans.

The Russian attacks on us England fans in Marseilles – which I witnessed with my own eyes – made the tournament an absolute no-go for the vast majority of England fans.

I was well aware of Russia’s problem with extreme right wing hooliganism and the country’s supposed intolerance to non-whites and the LGBT community so for me, that made the trip a double no-go.

My wife asked me .. no sorry she TOLD me not to go.

My mates said I would be mad going.

I was adamant that I wasn’t going.

But once again, football won the day. Justified it has to be said by booking a short two-day trip to Kaliningrad in which I convinced myself – with it being just over the Polish border – that it was not really Russia.

That was going to be it. Another tournament I could tick off the list.

However, as the start date grew closer and the hysteria over the safety of England fans going to Russia increased, my view started to change.

My Russian host in Kaliningrad - who had agreed to put me up in her house over the tournament – was repeatedly telling me that the Russians were massively excited about people coming to their country for the World Cup, I had nothing to fear and would have a brilliant time.

Slowly the butterflies in my stomach melted.

Four days before the tournament started, I booked a flight to Volgograd for England’s opening match against Tunisia.

The adventure had begun.

My first thoughts on landing in Volgograd were:

“This is very different. I have no idea what anyone was saying or where I was going. And Google Maps, Google Translate and Yandex (the taxi app) are my friend so no worries”.

And to say my friends got battered is an understatement (Google and Yandex that is).

My apartment - Beautiful. Clean. Right in the middle of town.

My host Elizavetha - Lovely. She even made me breakfast one day. And gave me a tour of Volgograd.

Getting about - Yandex all the way (the Russian Uber). Three of us took a 40 minute taxi ride from the airport. We decided against splitting the £2.50 bill

I distinctly remember my first walk out of my apartment. It was the middle of the day. The sun was blazing. It must have been thirty degrees outside.

I had been told not to walk on my own. But I couldn’t get the Yandex to work and before I knew it, I was 10 minutes from my flat wandering. I have to admit, I was a tad nervous. I could feel people staring at me.

I carried on walking down to the impressive fan fest on the banks of the River Volga. Familiar territory. I felt safer here as I was amongst football fans – although there were hardly any England fans there.

Next minute, this Russian guy came up to me and started to hug me – telling me how happy he was that we had come to his country. He then started reeling off the names of Wayne Rooney. Gary Lineker. Alan Shearer. Harry Kane. And other England players.

A few minutes later, another Russian guy did the same. Then a girl.

I went to bed at 6am after partying all night with the locals. I calculated that I had been hugged by about 40 Russians in that time. It was unbelievable.

After that day, all my fears were gone.

Russia was going to be fun.

I, with FA Chairman Greg Clarke, was asked to put a wreath down in memory of the Soviet war dead at the Volgograd Hall of Military Glory – in the shadow of the very imposing Mother Russia statue. After the event, I was given the opportunity to speak to the world’s media.

Naturally they asked me how Russia had been treating me and I didn’t lie. I told them I had been warmly embraced by the locals. And that football fans who had not travelled for of fear of trouble were likely to miss out on a great tournament.

I wasn’t wrong.

I spent a fantastic three days in Volgograd before heading back to London.

I flew back out a week later - having even more fun in Kaliningrad. The trip by coach across the Russian border from Gdansk was pretty grueling though – endless passport checks by not particularly happy-looking border police.

Once we reached the knockout stage, I had no plans to go back until England were eliminated.

Just like in Germany and Ukraine and other previous competitions, the whole country – as opposed to just the hard core football fans - had embraced the football tournament and suddenly it was a much warmer and accommodating place to be.

Samara was my favourite of all the places I visited. Nice city. Friendly locals. Really chilled. And lots of fun.

If we weren’t hanging out on the beach on the banks of the River Volga we were at Art and Fact – our designated late night drinking spot.

Moscow was great place to tick off the bucket list. But it was a 6/10 for me. Imposing. Impersonal. And busy. That’s coming from a Londoner too. Oh and we got ripped off in an accommodation scam.

I did take a trip down to FARE’s Diversity House around the corner from Red Square - a refreshing few hours spent with a really diverse set of like-minded people.

I will remember the Colombia game for a very long time. Having conceded a late equalizer which resulted in that penalty shoot-out, I was certain that England had once again fluffed their lines.

Having witnessed in person every single one of England’s seven penalty shoot-outs to that date, I had only seen them win one – Spain in Euro 1996.

I was certain this set of spot kicks wouldn’t buck the winless trend.

Needless to say, I as absolutely ecstatic when that winning penalty went in. Even more so than when we beat the Swedes to get to the semi-final a few days later - a victory that seemed almost routine.

Did I have any problems in Russia? There was one incident.

Myself and my pal Obi (a fellow black England fan) were searching for our taxi pick-up point in Samara. Two young local lads stopped to help us.

As we all stood in the street peering at the map, this guy walked past us and bellowed “White Russia”. I looked up at him confused as he walked off.

I asked these two guys “White Russia. What does that mean?” …

They looked embarrassed. And shrugged. But I pushed them on it. “What was he on about? White Russia”

They both still looked at me embarrassed. Then one of them said “Don’t mind him. He’s from the ghetto”

… take from that what you want

They then called us a cab on their app and very kindly paid for it – apologizing for Mr White Russia and his ranting.

That is a story about Russia you won’t read about in the mainstream press.

Also it was interesting pressing local people on Putin. I asked a lot of the locals if everyone supported Putin as there seemed to be a ‘cult of Putin’ thing going down.

Not many people were prepared to talk about Putin in public – often going quiet when I asked the question. But what one person did tell me was “Not all the young people think the same way as their elders”.

I thought that was very interesting.

All in all I had a great time in Russia. I met some lovely people. England, Russian. And fans supporting teams from all over the world. From Colombians to Tunisians.

Saying that, I’m not stupid enough to think that it’s all rosy over there. Not by any means.

Numerous local people told me that there was an amnesty during the world cup – with the extreme right wing hooligans gangs told to keep their heads down for a month.

I was even told by a very good source that Nikolskaya Street – the main street in Moscow where all the fans converged during the World Cup – was actually full of ultras from the various hooligan firms taking selfies and singing with Argentinian and Colombian and English fans.

Next time I ventured down to Nikolskaya St with my mate Puns, we played ‘Spot the Ultra’. After being given the signs, they were surprisingly easy to spot. The clothing. Mouthing the wrong words to fairly well known football chants. Photographing themselves in front of England flags.

I think the score was fairly even.

So the World Cup is over. And Russia still has its problems.

There is still an issue an with far right hooliganism. An intolerance to people with a different skin colour and LGBT still exists - it hasn’t just gone away overnight.

I met a Russian girl only a week ago on the tube. She now lives in London but goes home regularly. We started talking World Cup.

She told me how her Italian boyfriend was chased by skinheads with knives in Moscow fairly recently. She was convinced that the country had only transformed temporarily for the World Cup and now it was back to normal again.

But lets not forget England also has its problems too. And if another country decided to focus the microscope on our country, we would not come out in all sweetness and light.

The fact is I had a great three weeks in Russia. And I would like to think from what relative little I saw of the country, Russian people learned a lot from having the World Cup on its soil.

I previously said that Japan was the best World Cup ever.

After the competition was over, my Japanese friend Aki told me that there was a huge attitude shift in his country with people ‘doing things that they wouldn’t normally do’. after mixing with fans from all over the world.

Young Japanese people started challenging ‘the Japanese norm’.

Russia came close to beating Japan as the best World Cup ever for me.

And maybe .. just maybe last summer will have seen the seeds sown for a shift in attitude amongst the Russian people after meeting fans from different cultures descend on their cities.

A shift inspired by the beautiful game.

Now that would be something that even Putin would have found hard to manipulate.

Thanks to David Shaw for the image used in this blog.