England fans began to trickle into Volgograd for their team’s World Cup opening match and were being received warmly by local residents despite many previous clashes between Russian and English soccer fans.
England will take on Tunisia on June 18 at 9 p.m. local time at the $280 million Volgograd Arena, which stands on one of the major fighting grounds during World War II's Battle of Stalingrad between Soviet and German forces that killed some 2 million people.
Although some fans arrived on June 17, most of the 5,000 England supporters were expected to begin arriving in the early morning of June 18.
Some observers had expressed concerns that the arrival of English fans could lead to a flare-up of violence based on previous fan interactions.
At the 2016 European championships, there were violent clashes involving English and Russian supporters in the French city of Marseille.
Some of the fans who arrived on June 17 came through the Volgograd rail station from Moscow after a 20-hour train journey.
Two fans arrived after riding 3,800 kilometers by bike. Jamie Marriott and Mitchell Jones set off from the southern town of Emsworth on May 25 and traveled through France, Germany, Poland, and Ukraine to reach Volgograd.
"Officially, through the FA [Football Association], England fans have bought 2,200 tickets for this game. But we expect a few more have got some in the neutral sections," Thomas Concannon of England's Football Supporters' Federation told the AFP news agency.
He said he did not expect any trouble, given the lower number of English fans than had been at the Marseille match in 2016 due to the higher costs of coming to Volgograd. Security was also extremely tight in the Russian city on the Volga River.
'Everyone Singing And Dancing'
Britain's Guardian newspaper reported a heightened police presence and said military officers were searching the area around the team hotel for explosive devices. A perimeter fence has been erected around the hotel, and the squad’s bus was being escorted in police motorcades wherever it went.
England supporters reported receiving a warm welcome.
"We were out last night in this bar and it was incredible -- everyone was singing and dancing, Russians were giving us vodka, everyone was trying to help out," said Nigel Booth, 55.
"The locals here simply aren't used to having visitors, and very few speak any English at all, but that hasn't stopped people bounding up to us to shake hands, chat and ask what we think of their new stadium,"Sky News correspondent Enda Brady reported.
Vyacheslav, a 79-year-old Russian fan, said, "There will be no trouble at all. We have organized everything perfectly, and it's in nobody’s interests to cause trouble."
Andrei Kosalapov, the mayor of Volgograd, said: "We have had no trouble from England fans, and we do not expect any. Volgograd is a city of peace."
Called Tsaritsyn under the tsars, the city's name was changed to Stalingrad in 1925 by the Soviet regime to honor then-leader Josef Stalin.
The battle of Stalingrad became a symbol of Soviet resilience in the face of the Nazi onslaught in 1942-43, and marked a turning point in the war.
It was renamed again to Volgograd in the early 1960s during the political thaw that followed Stalin's death in 1953.
The other World Cup matches on June 18 will have South Korea facing Sweden in Nizhny Novgorod, and Belgium playing Panama in Sochi.