NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia (Reuters) - With fears of hooliganism and animosity from Russians disappearing fast, England fans are streaming into the tranquil, riverside city of Nizhny Novgorod for their next game, mingling happily with locals in old streets and sun-kissed squares.
There has been no major trouble at the World Cup despite predictions of possible violence between English and Russians fans.
Indeed, the ‘Three Lions’ contingent is in rare optimistic mood after a 2-1 win at their opening game in Volgograd against Tunisia.
“The atmosphere is brilliant. The locals are great!” said Charlie Carline, 33, enjoying a beer with fellow England fans and a host of other nationalities watching a game on big screens at the hilltop fan zone next to the local ‘Kremlin’ fort.
“It’s a shame. Going by the media, a lot of people were put off. Now they are starting to regret it - especially because we’re playing well and we’re going to win it!” added Carline, at his third World Cup but without some friends put off by headlines in British media about potential trouble.
The numbers of traveling English fans is thought to be the lowest for a major tournament in three decades. Fewer than 2,500 were expected in Nizhny Novgorod, about 400 km (250 miles) east of Moscow, for Sunday’s Group D clash with Panama.
Kevin Miles, chief executive of fan group the Football Supporters’ Federation, said more would now like to come to Russia after the encouraging win over Tunisia and lack of problems. But for most, it was too late to organize visas, tickets and logistics.
“The message has gone back home that it is actually quite good out here, despite all the hype,” said Miles, preparing to set up a “fans’ embassy” at the fan zone near the Volga river.
POST-COLD WAR DIPLOMATIC LOW
The World Cup is taking place with relations between Moscow and London at a post-Cold War low due to disputes over Ukraine, Syria and the poisoning of a former Russian spy in England.
But little of that was on the minds of English fans sitting on grassy banks or trying local dishes in city-center cafes.
Locals, too, said dire warnings over misbehavior by the English - who clashed with Russians at the 2016 European Championship - were looking far-fetched.
“They are very nice, just like the fans of other countries. They are not the monsters some people thought,” said Tatiana Vasiliev, 24, serving sandwiches to a group of English in a placid boulevard.
Not all, however, has been picture-perfect.
Two British fans were charged with drunkenness and hooliganism in a train to Volgograd, and others were caught on camera making Nazi salutes.
Contrasting with that, some fans attended a tribute in Volgograd to the more than 1 million Russians who died in the Battle of Stalingrad, during World War Two.
English fans arriving in Nizhny Novgorod said they had received nothing but help and welcome from Russians, often with the aid of translation apps on the locals’ phones.
“I have felt no hostility from anyone,” said Chad Thomas, 27. “This is the real Russia - not anything like we were led to believe it would be.”
Editing by Amlan Chakraborty