England football songs rang out across Lenin Square in Donetsk yesterday evening, as hundreds of fans basked in the hot Ukrainian sunshine and enjoyed cheap beer ahead of England's game against France tonight. England play all three of their group games at Euro 2012 in Ukraine, and high costs, accommodation chaos and a fear of violence have all led to the smallest travelling England support to attend a major tournament in living memory.
Only 3,000 fans took up tickets through the Football Association. Yesterday evening there were still several hundred seats available for tonight's game, and touts were trying to offload tickets at face value outside the 50,000-seater Donbass Arena.
However, those fans who have made the journey say they have been amazed by how welcoming the city has been, even if many of them are dealing with unorthodox accommodation situations. Bob Dickerson, 63, has travelled from Ipswich with his son Kevin, and is staying in a hostel for the first time at a major tournament, as the hotels were too expensive.
He says he has no regrets, however, and is disappointed that more England fans have not travelled. "The media coverage has stopped a lot of people from coming, and that's a real shame, because it's absolutely fantastic here," he said between sips of beer at the Golden Lion pub in central Donetsk, which has been colonised by England fans. "We've had a bit of a problem with the language, but everyone has been really eager to help."
The shortage of hotel rooms and the astronomical price of those that are on offer has meant that many supporters have headed to a giant makeshift camping park on the outskirts of town, where more than 2,000 England and France fans are expected tonight, staying in tents with temporary bedding for £7 per person. "I'm not used to travelling like this – it's the first time in 10 years I've been on a holiday where I have to bring my own towel," said James Baxter, a London-based corporate lawyer who arrived at the camping park yesterday. "But I wasn't prepared to shell out £1,000 for a hotel." The site has a swimming pool, dozens of bars and food outlets, and the park's manager, Sergei Khanovich, promised a nightly disco until 6am.
There is anger in Donetsk over what city officials feel has been unfair British media coverage of preparations for the Euros, but the attitude of local hoteliers and rental agencies has not helped. It appears that owners would rather have rooms empty than lower the prices. One rental agency said that of the 14 apartments it had available, only three had been rented out, while the rest were sitting empty. The agency's owner said he did not plan to reduce prices or abolish a five-day minimum stay rule.
"It's the Euros after all, we're still hoping people will come last-minute," he said. The Park Inn still had rooms available yesterday, but the cheapest was nearly £400. The Donbass Palace, the city's best hotel, has free rooms next Monday, when England take on Ukraine in Donetsk, but a two-night stay will set visitors back £1,000.
A spokesman for the British Embassy in Kiev said yesterday evening that there had been no major incidents involving England fans, and the major concern was the hot weather and making sure people drink enough water. More England fans are expected in the city today.
... and even back home the fans are apathetic
The England match today is the culmination of an inauspicious build-up that has seen a lukewarm reception for the new manager, Roy Hodgson, controversy over Rio Ferdinand's snub, injuries and fears that the tournament could be marred by racist fans. The tournament also suffers the misfortune of sharing the summer with the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics.
As if to symbolise the nation's relative apathy over Euro 2012, England's official anthem – "Sing 4 England" by Chris Kamara – failed even to make the top 200 in yesterday's chart.
"Everyone's attention is on other things," said Kevin Miles, international director of the Football Supporters' Federation, who is one of only about 5,000 England fans in Poland and Ukraine. "I tuned in to Radio 5 the other day and instead of talking football they had live coverage of the taekwondo".