Forced to be a bystander as Peruvians, Danes, Costa Ricans, Croatians and an abundance of other nations’ supporters left for, and returned from their opening World Cup outings, as Monday morning rolled around the pre-match rush was finally England’s.
Landing in Volgograd around midday, we were met with an onslaught of Tunisian noise. Surrounding the train station, lining the streets and commandeering significant chunks of the Volga riverside fan park, a sea of red flags, heavily outnumbering the Three Lions’ presence, filled the eye.
Aside from the outrageous number of mosquitos, the Eagles’ supporters were undoubtedly the strongest force in Stalingrad. The North Africans, much like the South Americans in Moscow earlier in the week, provided a carnival atmosphere ahead of the evening’s entertainment, with chanting and drumming a constant as all in the former war-battered city prepared for the day’s showpiece.
Inside the stadium – ahead of kick-off – it was very much a similar theme, with the pockets of travelling Tunisians throughout the Volgograd Arena not letting up for a moment. Proudly chanting their country’s title, even claiming the golden trophy would find a temporary home in Tunis following the final in Moscow next month – the Eagles’ backing were seemingly as giddy in anticipation as the reported 2,000 that had made their way from England.
Both sets of supporters had their moments during the first half; the Three Lions’ as Harry Kane netted early on, and the Tunisians shortly after Ferjani Sassi slid home from 12 yards for the equaliser. However, neither amounted to anything close to the carnage which ensued as the Tottenham Hotspur man clinched the last-gasp winner in stoppage time.
Much like Adam Lallana’s strike in Slovakia two years ago during the infancy of England’s World Cup qualification campaign, as well as the Spurs striker’s volley at Hampden Park last summer, Kane’s header catalysed a mosh pit-style ruck behind the goal. Beer – at least, I hope it was beer – thrown aloft, drenching the embracing supporters below as, for a split second, strangers became like long-lost family members reunited.
However, despite the ‘scenes’ and ‘limbs’, arguably the most telling reaction was not in the stands, but on the touchline. Obviously, I was a touch preoccupied as Kane’s winner rippled the net to glance at Gareth Southgate; however, the TV pictures speak for themselves.
In France two years ago, as Daniel Sturridge sent England supporters into ecstasy, Roy Hodgson portrayed his obligatory arms aloft celebration. Despite recording a famous victory over the Welsh, the now-Crystal Palace manager was somewhat reserved in his reaction. Southgate, on the other hand, encapsulated the same emotion that was plentiful behind the goal – raw, unadulterated joy.
But it was not in that moment of last-minute success which provided the most interesting response; more so with 15 minutes to go, and an England team seemingly lacking the incisiveness to break a well-organised Tunisian defence down.
Usually, in moments such as this, supporters’ reactions are telling. Moans and groans are often evident, frustration from the sidelines visible, and it undoubtedly feeds through to those on the pitch. In truth, that very scenario is one the Three Lions have experienced all too often in recent years – with disappointment after disappointment, particularly in tournament football, grinding out any enthusiasm left in a lot of the nation’s following.
However, on Monday, a different offering presented itself. Even in times of desperation during the 90 minutes, England fans trusted the XI and, more importantly, Southgate. The FA came under mass amounts of criticism before the Three Lions boss had even taken to the dugout. Calls that the governing body had hired a ‘yes man’ due to his pathway through the St George’s Park system and brandishing his somewhat uninspiring club managerial record with the likes of Middlesbrough.
Yet, here we are, at a World Cup, when almost all other ‘big’ footballing nations have failed to clinch maximum points from their opening round of games, with genuine optimism. It would be questionable to think England could win the World Cup this summer, or that, if they make it, the latter rounds will not be too much for the mostly-youthful and somewhat inexperienced squad.
However, certainly not while I have been following the Three Lions has there been such a sense of belief or togetherness surrounding the national team. And even if that is all we leave Russia with in 2018, it will be a significant step forward compared to where we were in France two years ago.