Charlie Markillie travelled to Russia with his fingers crossed – not just for his beloved England team, but for the safety of their fans having seen Russian football hooligans in action first-hand.
“I was in Marseille during the 2016 European Championship and witnessed the carnage that ensued when Russian fans attacked the England fans,” Markillie, an English expat living in Hong Kong, said before his flight to Russia for the 2018 Fifa World Cup.
“Because of that, there has been a lot of negative press in the run-up with fears that hooligans may make more headlines than the actual football. I hope that isn’t the case.”
Euro 2016, hosted in France, was tarnished by clashes between violent Russian hooligans and English fans following a group match at the Stade Velodrome, leaving 35 in hospital.
Markillie and friends flew to Moscow, nonetheless, before taking a train to Nizhny Novgorod for the England v Panama group game.
They rounded the trip off with a flight to Kaliningrad for the Belgium match and have – bank balances aside – returned home unscathed.
“[It] was absolutely fantastic and despite staying in some pretty awful and horrendously overpriced accommodation, it exceeded my expectations in just about every aspect,” said Markillie, who has been to two other World Cups and two European Championships.
Fears of similar anti-English, racist and homophobic attacks, as well as outrage stemming from Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the recent poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter on British soil, caused many to stay at home.
“It was superbly organised – far better than some European tournaments I’ve been to – and the Russian fans were friendly and welcoming throughout,” Markillie said.
“The Russian fans generally [impressed me the most]. They had received so much bad press prior to the tournament and many fans didn’t go because they feared a repeat of Marseille, but they were phenomenal.
“Every city we went to they were warm, welcoming and really, really pro-England. Every time we got our England flag out we would be inundated with requests from locals who were keen to pose [for photos] and talk to us about their love for English football.”
First-time World Cup-goers and England fans Michael Choi and Alvin So made the trip from Hong Kong for the tense quarter-final tie between Russia and Croatia – which saw Ivan Rakitic score the winning penalty to put Croatia through – and the third-place playoff between Belgium and England.
“I expect to watch the games, learn about Russian culture, eat lots of Russian food, and not get hit by hooligans or have anything stolen by thieves – Russia is not the most renowned for safety,” Choi said before departing. He has since returned to the city.
Sodid not even acknowledge the dangers; rather, he said looked forward to “watching the games with a cold pint of beer in hand and no worries about the time difference”.
In fact, any lingering fan tension appeared to subside by the end of the tournament, with thousands of England fans trekking to Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium last-minute as Gareth Southgate’s side continued to exceed expectations.
Many Russian fans even showed their support for England’s semi-final against Croatia after defender Domagoj Vida was seen shouting “Glory to Ukraine” – deemed an anti-Russia slogan to the natives – following their win in the previous round.
Amro Abbas, an Egyptian living in Hong Kong, chose the Russia World Cup to be his maiden major football tournament. He travelled alone to watch all three of Belgium’s group matches and Denmark v France.
“Once Egypt qualified for the first time in 28 years – and what feels like the first time in my lifetime – I was definitely going,” said Abbas, a fan of English giants Tottenham Hostpur.
“I have supported Spurs my entire life and been a huge fan of the Premier League so I find it hard not to support England, too.
“A lot of friends were shocked and worried about me going to Russia considering the stories and trouble people were expecting.
“Being a positive, energetic person meant I went with plenty of positivity, but I was aware that I needed to keep my wits about me.
“Some may call it naive, but if you constantly look for negatives and things to moan about, all you’ll do is exactly that.”
Perhaps that was the secret to Russia’s successful wrapping of the world’s most popular sporting event, for aside from isolated incidents of idiotic English fans giving Nazi salutes, the fans’ cautious optimism and trust that football transcends race or creed eventually came through.
This article Fifa World Cup hooligan ‘carnage’ fears pleasantly prove false for Hong Kong football fans in Russia first appeared on South China Morning Post
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