Keeping the love from Russia alive

Look” exclaims Kamil. “No hooligans!” He’s just picked us up outside our hostel close to the Kremlin in Nizhny Novgorod. With insane mark-ups being slapped on taxi fares for the duration of the World Cup, Yandex.taxi – Russia’s ride-hailing app of choice – is a godsend. They generally arrive in minutes and the drivers are diverse bunch, providing a snapshot into ethnic Russia. From Buryats to Belarussians, we run the gamut.

Kamil is an Azeri, and he’s ebullient to the point of popping. As we drive alongside the Volga, Europe’s longest waterway, he jabs a hairy finger back over his shoulder. “Azerbaijan there,” he says indicating the river’s course south toward the Caspian Sea. “My home. Volga very big.” Then, sweeping the other paw out in front of him, he returns to what he clearly feels is another key feature of the landscape, noticeable by its absence. “You see? Hooligans, no!”

Soon, Kamil lapses into Russian, which – using the only bit of Russian we do speak, we tell him we don’t. Yet, in a manner remarkably similar to the English tradition of simply repeating things more slowly and loudly – he seems determined to bludgeon us into comprehension. “Tofiq Bahramov,” he says. “TO-FIQ BAH-RA-MOV!” Suddenly I twig: The Russian Linesman!

Tofiq Bahramov is a legend of Azeri football, famed not for his exploits with the ball at his feet, rather as the greatest whistle-blower in history of the lands that made up the former Soviet Union (the achievements of Edward Snowden notwithstanding). As a linesman in the ’66 final at Wembley, he provided England’s defining World Cup glory and one of the most controversial moments in the tournament’s history. By advising Swiss referee Gottfried Dienst to award a goal for Geoff Hurst’s was-it, wasn’t-it crossbar rattler, he endeared himself to generations of England fans under the misnomer “The Russian Linesman.”

No! No Russian,” Kamil insists, a momentary frown darkening his habitually upbeat demeanour. “Is Azerbaijan.”

Left: “The Russian Linesman” Tofiq Bahramov; right: old foes Hurst and Tilkowski meet Tofiq’s son Bahram for the unveiling of a statue of his father at the national stadium in Baku, which is named after him. The event took place in 2006 before a Euro 2008 qualifying match between England and Azerbaijan. Of the ceremony, Tilkowski said, “There were about 150 journalists around us. Before the first question came in, I said: ‘Let’s be clear – the ball was not in.'” For his part, Hurst remains unsure but has said that, after seeing years of analysis, he’d probably err towards Tilkowski’s view (not that the ‘keeper had much of one with his back to goal!)

In 2004, when England drew Azerbaijan in a World Cup qualifier, Hurst attended a ceremony in Bahramov’s honour at the national stadium in Baku, which was renamed after the man himself. A statue of Bahramov was unveiled and, donning shirts with his name and the number 66 on them. an England supporters group met the late ref’s son. 

The English affection for Bahramov has been reciprocated by his descendants. “We’re all big England fans and hope they win the World Cup again this year,” his grandson and namesake told The Sun ahead of England’s Group G opener with Tunisia on 19 June. 

Kamil is just as enthusiastic. “England very good,” he says, before revealing that his eye might not have been firmly on the ball of late.“Rooney, number one.”

The goodwill for England isn’t limited to ties fostered by historical quirks of fate. Throughout their Russian campaign, the love is everywhere and it never feels contrived. On a street corner outside the FIFA Fan Fest in Nizhny, a pair of tipsy Russians dismiss the frosty relations between London and Moscow as grandstanding. “We don’t care about this political bullshit,” says one. “We love England. England-Russia for the semifinal!”

Later, when a sudden downpour shuts the fan zone down, a little over 10 minutes into England’s quarterfinal with Sweden, we flee the scene and manage to grab a small table in a crowded cafe. Apart from us, two poor Swedish girls at the back of the room, and an Armenian member of staff named Gor, everyone is Russian. Almost all of them are supporting England. At the final whistle, Gor shouts me a celebratory craft beer and sticker for our scrapbook, in which he writes “Congratulations! Come back to Russia soon!”

England fans don shirts with with Tofiq’s surname and the year of our one and only World Cup title on the back as they meet his son Bahram Bahramov in 2006.

Then there’s Limpopo, an incongruously jungle-themed waterpark in Yekaterinaburg, where a lifeguard at the mouth of one the snaking slides is so overwhelmed to meet English people that she is literally lost words. “Oh … oh … oh …,” she repeats, over and over, before concluding, “Super!” In the saunas downstairs, an excitable and delightfully camp young lad, expresses similar sentiments. “Oh, England! My favourite!”

Even in the wilderness of Siberia, the English are warmly welcomed. Following an eight-hour hike from the tourist town of Listvyanka along the shores of Lake Baikal, we arrive at the remote village of Bolshiye Koty. I’ve emailed our guesthouse owner Alexei well in advance to enquire where we might catch England’s final group game with Belgium, and he introduces me to Sasha, a neighbour who says he’ll be happy to host me later. “He wouldn’t normally stay up,” says Alexei, “but for England …”

The village lagboat moaning a wounded-dog lament somewhere in the dark, as I creep along the muddy lane to Sasha’s cottage just before kick-off at 2 a.m. He has already showed me how to work the spring-latch contraption on the wooden gate but I still end up bunking over the fence. An avuncular fellow, with a thick salt-and-pepper moustache, Sasha greets me in a musty annex to the main building, then promptly flops onto a camp bed and motions me to a sofa. We drink beer and cheap wine as England’s second-string take on their Belgian counterparts on a small TV perched on a dresser in the corner.

At half time, Sasha shows me pictures of his family and the village in winter, his granddaughter driving a quad through the snow in the front yard, his own larger four-by-four out on the frozen lake. With the game offering little in the way excitement, Sasha begins to reflect on the English stars of the past. He speaks no English and I no Russian but we just throw out and confirm names.

Gascoigne, Vaddle, Hoddle,” he offers.

I can’t remember any of the names of the players in the Russian team that lost to Holland in the Euro ’88 final – their last outing as the Soviet Union. But I remember they were a damn good team, undone by an even better Dutch outfit. “Russia, ’88” I say, writing the the digits on a scrap of paper for clarification. He shrugs and grimaces. “Van Basten … ”

Then he’s back to England, this time ’66. “Hurst, Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore.” For a moment, he looks puzzled, reaching for a name that won’t come. He gestures, pushing the flat of his hand towards the floor to indicate diminutive stature, then sitting up in the bed, he bounces up and down, dancing an an odd jig with his shoulders.

Nobby Stiles!”

Da! Steels! Da!”

At the village of Bolshiye Koty on the western shore of Lake Baikal in Siberia

It’s not just the Russians, either. At our Nizhny hostel, Morgan, a young Frenchman who has just finished stint as a teaching assistant in Liverpool, says he feels a good vibe around this current set of players. “England are now cool,” he says in amazement.

Even the old nemeses, are in on the act. Guillermo, craggy, a middled-aged Argentine agrees with Morgan’s assessment. “Vamos, England!” he writes in our book. “England-Belgium final.” When I find myself a few roubles short after some afternoon beers in the dining cart of a Trans-Siberian train, a young man calls over from another table, “Hey, it’s OK, my friend will pay. He likes England. They’re his favourite team.” I ask where they are from. “Argentina,” he replies to chuckles the from the other passengers – an assortment of nationalities.

Does this mean England are suddenly everyone’s other team? Of course not. History is against us. Almost three decades of, at best, boorish behaviour and drunken violence, at worst, has sullied the any reputation we may have ever enjoyed. And even when we’re not acting up, there is still a widespread belief that England’s inflated, misplaced sense of its own importance in the postcolonial world has extended to its players, whose self-belief has not always been commensurate with their ability.

On the eve of the semifinal with Croatia, social media is awash with the usual accusations of English arrogance. Fans of various nationalities are scathing about the perceived overconfidence from some sections of the media. It’s hard to convince them that the tub-thumping jingoism of The Sun does not represent the views of all England fans or that the paper’s puntastic headlines are not to be taken completely seriously (the “Go Kane” gag before the Colombia quarter earned a rebuke from that country’s ambassador).

On the ground in Moscow, though, the banter between the fans is all good natured. The booze-fuelled raucousness of the fans on the trains has some locals pursing their lips in annoyance, but in general the atmosphere is remarkably convivial. Most Russians seem amused by the vociferous antics. Ascending the long metro escalators at Kuznetsky Most, England fans holler their tournament theme song, with its threat to Russian vodka reserves, to the tune of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September.” Above them, a group of Croats respond with a chant of “England, England, sorry for tonight!” – simple, to the point and, alas, prescient. A Croatia fan scouting for tickets outside the Luzhniki Stadium wishes us good luck “but not too much.” His friend adds mischievously, “Break a leg!”

Fans of all nationalities were looking for tickets or just lapping up the atmosphere outside the Luzhniki Stadium for the England-Croatia semi on 11 July, 2018. Pharoah play to this Egyptian fella for hanging around for the whole tourney after his team went home at the group stage. This was their first World Cup since Italy 1990 when they lost 1-0 to us in the group stages, defender Mark Wright heading the winning goal.

Some people – inevitably the usual bitter melons among them – aren’t buying into the new loveable England. “They’re like Man United,” I hear a Scotsman tell his girlfriend from the balcony of a first-floor apartment in Mallorca, a week after then tournament has ended. “No one likes them. Man United because they were too good. England, well, just because they’re England.”

Ten years ago, while being ejected from a bar in Riga just because I happened to be standing next to a group of aggro Man United fans, I would have agreed with him. “That’s not my problem,” the manager told me when I protested. “Why don’t you ask your countrymen why they behave like that?” Yet, this time round, even my Scots pals had to try extra hard to hate England.

Perhaps the most delightful reaction we encounter during our three weeks in Russia comes en route to Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on the afternoon of the semi with Croatia. We’re outside Volgogradsky Prospekt metro station, close to where we’ve been staying, a few stops out of town on the purple line, when we catch the eye of an shabbily dressed old man, rummaging through the bins for dog-ends.

Spansky?” he asks. I shake my head. “Frantsuzskiy?”

Angliyskiy” I reply.

Ohhhh,” he begins with the excitement that we’ve come to expect during our three weeks in Russia. Then: “It’s coming home!”

There were all kinds of hangers-on outside the stadium!

It wasn’t – it didn’t, but England left the tournament with an optimism and sense of satisfaction that, with the exception of Euro ’96, I cannot remember having felt before. Yes, Luka Modric’s post- match barbs at the “disrespectful” way that the press “underestimated” Croatia rankled somewhat but they certainly didn’t reflect the view of the majority. Instead, they were proof that the old image of England will still take some time to shake off

With international service resuming in the form of the nascent UEFA Nations League this weekend, let’s hope Gareth Southgate’s team can build, not just on the performance side (Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Spain was reality check), but also on the love from Russia. Forget the old Millwall ditty: it’s actually nice to be liked.

 

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