“England’s going all the way!” a few hundred Three Lions supporters chanted at kickoff, even though the very fact that Gareth Southgate’s team was playing in this third-place match against Belgium meant they weren’t.
The match had been derided as a repeat friendly, as England previously lost to Belgium in Kaliningrad when both teams had already qualified for the knockout stages.
That didn’t stop a cadre of rabid fans from coming to show their love for a side that had defied expectations by reaching its first World Cup semifinal in 28 years.
“To those of us who have been to all six games, it’s almost churlish to leave the team at the death when we can say thank you and express our support,” said Garford Beck, 56, a civil servant from London who was wearing a bicorne hat with his England jersey.
Having attended all 10 qualifying matches leading up to the tournament, he also went to all seven of England’s World Cup matches, criss-crossing more than 1,500 miles of eastern Europe.
The third-place game ended in a disappointing 0-2 loss after England failed to convert several agonising second-half opportunities, but fans refused to be deterred.
The beating will be an afterthought compared to the upwelling of hope and pride in the team in recent weeks and the rehabilitation of manager Gareth Southgate after his infamous 1996 penalty miss. In addition, Tottenham striker Harry Kane is now a lock to become the second Englishman since Gary Lineker to win the World Cup golden boot after Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku failed to score.
Joanne Gover, a Sainsbury’s supply chain manager from Milton Keynes, had followed the team through a third World Cup, only missing the quarterfinal when she had to fly back to the UK for work.
“We have to be there to show the team we’re with them when they’re with us,” she said.
“All we’ve got is a chest cold, a bunch of (mosquito) bites and a huge hole in our credit card, but it was worth it,” Mr Garford said of the seven-week campaign. England was less than a half-hour from the final when Croatia scored an equalising goal on Wednesday, he added.
“I mustn’t grumble, mustn’t complain, I never thought we’d be using all seven match tickets,” he said.
While some 10,000 Britons attended the semifinal defeat to Croatia, the Football Association estimated that 1,500 attended the third-place match. Among them were Jamie Vardy’s wife Rebekah and Harry Maguire’s girlfriend Fern Hawkins.
Mr Garford also met goalkeeper Jordan Pickford’s parents after the match.
“It’s a strange one,” said Kevin Miles of the Football Supporters Federation. “Everyone is disappointed about losing the semi-final but also proud they’ve come so far.”
The English fans who did attend made more than their share of noise, banging on drums and singing songs. The roar was just as loud when England was on a break as when Belgium was.
James Monks, 25, of Wolverhampton said he thought third-place World Cup matches should be abolished, but said he was glad to see St Petersburg, the most beautiful Russian city he’s been to yet.
He was also happy to be part of the football frenzy that had swept through England fans during the World Cup.
“Before the tournament nobody cared about England, there was no positivity toward the country,” he said. “After we put six past Panama and won the penalty (against Colombia), everyone got behind them. Hopefully that will reflect on the future.”
“It’s united the country for once despite Brexit and everything. It’s the first time in a few years people have felt national pride and togetherness,” said Philip Deaton, 38, who is from Harrogate but now teaches English in China.
The third-place match also gave less experienced fans the chance to see an England World Cup match, since tickets were much easier to come by than at the semi-final, where supporters paid hundreds or even thousands of pounds.
Anton Faith, 32, who is from Blackburn but now works at a youth football programme in Florida, was relishing the chance to see England and “get behind football coming home”. With a St George’s cross wrapped around his shoulders, Russian fans were asking for selfies before the game.
He tried for several World Cup matches in the FIFA random draw but only won tickets to this one. He has woken up to the song “Three Lions (Football’s Coming Home)” every game day this World Cup, his wife Ashley revealed.
“People want to be able to see their country play,” Mr Faith said.
Many England fans were reluctant to leave the stadium after the match.
“I’m a bit sad that it’s all over to be honest, I didn’t want it to end, but have to get back to work,” Mr Garford said. “We’re a bit down it’s all over with it, but still very proud of the team what they’ve done.”
One thing the English seemed to have picked up here was the old Russian adage that “hope dies last”. “We’re still proud, it’s a good team,” Ms Gover said. “Next time we’ll win it.”
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