Wandering around Russia during the first week of the World Cup, you’re struck by a few things. Firstly, broadly speaking all the scare stories about hooliganism, warnings that packs of wild, club-wielding thugs would be stalking around looking for a skull to cave in, seem to be exactly that: scare stories. Of course, you see a few tasty types whose borscht it would be unwise to spill, but where don’t you?
Secondly, the people are generally extremely friendly, unsurprisingly a contrast to the hard-nosed Soviet types of Bond film trope, warm and tolerant of embarrassingly mono-lingual Englishmen who don’t realise they’ve even been pronouncing “thank you” wrong until the fourth day. FYI: it’s ‘spa-see-ba’, rather than ‘spassy-bar’.
But thirdly, there are Australians everywhere. Loads of Aussies. Heaps of Aussies. Stacks of Aussies, gold-shirted and keen to let the world know where they’re from. These estimates are always slightly wonky, but apparently 32,000 Australians are at the World Cup – more than England, among others.
In St Petersburg, where they’re not due to play: loads of Aussies. In Moscow, where they’re not due to play: loads of Aussies. In Rostov, where they’re not due to play and isn’t, shall we say, quite the same tourist hub as the other two: loads of Aussies.
Obviously it wasn’t quite as much of a surprise that Samara was a sea of gold and green ahead of Australia’s second group game against Denmark. Inside the stadium a small corner of Danes – who comparatively speaking came from just round the corner – were vastly outnumbered by an estimated 12,000 people who’d travelled over 9,000 miles.
This is a country defined by sport more than most, a people who can spend most of the time outside, so you might as well play something while you’re out there. With that in mind, even though football is a few rungs down the importance ladder, it’s not a shock that so many would fly halfway round the world to watch Mile Jedinak, his beard and the boys.
Speaking to a few of them before the game, explanations varied. “We like flying the flag for our country, whether that’s rugby, cricket or football,” offered Andrew from Melbourne, and that certainly fits with a nation rarely subtle about its patriotism. You suspect that if you stuck a mop in a gold shirt and told a group of Australians it was competing in the World Mop Championships, they’d probably start booking plane tickets.
“It’s pretty standard for Aussies,” says Kim who – and I promise you this is true – sports a hat with corks dangling off the brim. “We do it a lot, especially for football. It’s within our spirit I think.”
Kim is at her first World Cup, with dad Peter, a veteran of four, so is this mass decamping on a bigger scale to before? “In Germany, there were heaps of Aussies, because it was the first World Cup we’d reached in 40 years,” says Peter. “But there are more than at the last two certainly. A few people might have got scared off Brazil and South Africa.”
But not Russia? “A lot of people said ‘Why are you going, it’s not safe,’ stuff like that,” says Peter. Yet they’re still here, whereas significant numbers of English fans were put off. So Australians are just tougher than the Poms, then? “Basically, yes,” offers Kim. “We want to make sure everyone knows we’re not English,” says Peter, shrewdly.
There’s also something to be said for the still relatively niche nature of football in Australia. Its popularity has obviously grown, but it’s still behind cricket, at least one code of rugby and Aussie rules. “There’s maybe more of a cult thing about it, still,” suggests Miles, from Newcastle, just north of Sydney. When something is outside the mainstream, its followers tend to be more fervent, more willing to shell out the thousands it will have cost to travel to Russia.
And then there’s the simple idea that Australians are used to travelling long distances for, well, anything really. “If we want to travel anywhere, it involves a long plane ride,” says Madeline. Even if they want to hop over to near neighbours and local rivals New Zealand, it’s a three hours-plus flight from Sydney to Auckland. Basically, your average Australian is less likely to balk at a lengthy flight to Moscow, because they do that sort of thing all the time.
After the game, the vim had gone a little. The boisterous Aussies singing ‘Waltzing Matilda’ (not one from the big bag of lazy stereotypes: they really did) during the game became slightly disconsolate travellers, shuffling away from the Samara Arena after they drew their must-win game 1-1.
They now must beat Peru and hope France give Denmark a shoeing: not an outlandishly unlikely series of events, but for a team whose defensive midfielder Mile Jedinak has scored their last five competitive goals, expectations will be low.
Still, where there is sport, there are Australians. For another week at least, they will be in Russia, because this is what they do.