Euro 2012: England fans praise 'warm' Kiev welcome
- 24 June 2012
- From the section Europe
Supporters of the England football team are descending on Kiev ahead of Sunday's match against Italy. What's the atmosphere like in the Ukrainian capital?
England fans are coming - but it's not quite the invasion you might have expected ahead of a crunch quarter-final.
A relatively modest 6,000 England supporters are expected for the clash with Italy - they'll make up less than 10% of the crowd in the Olympic stadium.
Many are flying out on scheduled and chartered flights that arrive just a few hours before the match. Should England progress to the semi-final in Warsaw next Thursday, the expectation is that far more fans will fly out.
Those supporters who are already here in Kiev have been chatting happily to their Italian rivals and enjoying the entertainment laid on at the fan zone in Independence Square.
Some have been singing and dancing in the warm Ukrainian sunshine, in the corner of the zone reserved for them.
There's a big screen for supporters who can't get into the game, but there shouldn't be too many of them - tickets are not hard to come by and touts certainly won't be making their fortune at this game.
The atmosphere is exuberant and there's a clear message from England fans to those back home thinking about making the trip out to Ukraine: "Come and join the party!"
All the hype before the tournament had been about thuggish and racist Ukrainians, but the English say so far they've had warm welcomes wherever they've gone.
"It's brilliant," says Sandra, proudly wearing her England shirt. "The Ukrainian people are absolutely fantastic, we've had a really good time. Everybody loves their football, so it's really, really good."
"It's just a really positive atmosphere," says her friend Allison. "Everyone is in a party mood, really positive, so it's been a good experience so far."
Some supporters have driven hundreds of miles across Ukraine to get from match to match. They admit they didn't know quite what to expect when they came out here, but say they've encountered nothing but friendliness and warmth.
Graham Bleanch of the Football Supporters Federation says it's been a fabulous tournament. "The Ukrainians have really embraced the vibe, they enjoy their football and the fan zones have been spectacular."
Assistant Chief Constable Andy Holt, who leads the British police operation here in Kiev, says: "'There had been some negative publicity about racism and the reception they might receive, but they're having an enjoyable time and behaving themselves."
Behaving themselves so well, in fact, that not a single England fan has been arrested in Ukraine so far. Once upon a time, English hooligans blighted tournaments like this. Not any more.
Mr Holt said 2,000 known troublemakers are subjected to banning orders which means they can't travel.
So is hooliganism dead? "I don't think we've cured it but we're far more effective at managing it," says Mr Holt, who heads a team of 18 British police in Ukraine, with more in Poland. In uniform, they check the fans arriving at the airport here and monitor the fan zone.
Then during the game, they wear plain clothes and help their Ukrainian colleagues spot any troublemakers who might have slipped through the net.
England fans are confident of beating the Italians - or at least they say they are.
"I think England will win 4-1 and Rooney will get a hat-trick," says one. "2-0 win, Rooney both" and "England 2-1, Rooney to score," say others.
But they're much more nervous about the Germans who they will face in the semi-finals in Warsaw on Thursday if they can win here in Kiev.
The great fear among fans is the P word - penalties, the traditional means of English elimination from major international tournaments.
Even so somehow, and from somewhere, there is a creeping optimism here. Fans who didn't expect England to get out of their group are now daring to dream the dream of a place in the semi-final at least.
Roy Hodgson has managed to instil a certain harmony within the squad while there's also a happy camaraderie among the travelling supporters too.
Whisper it quietly, but England - players and supporters alike - seem happier than they have been for quite some time.