England fan Di Cunningham plans to fly the flag – quite literally – for gay rights in Russia on Monday night, where she will be cheering on the Three Lions’ in their World Cup opener against Tunisia.
Cunningham, an LGBT campaigner who works with England’s football authorities, is one of only a handful of openly gay England fans who have made the trip to Russia where gay activists have been detained for taking part in demonstrations.
She plans to wait until she is inside the stadium on Monday night before unfurling an England banner which combines the cross of St George and the rainbow colours of the gay movement, and she’ll also be waving a rainbow flag.
Russian officials have guaranteed no action will be taken to remove the banner in the arena, but showing it off in the street might be considered a breach of Russia’s 2013 law banning gay “propaganda,” Cunningham, a 56 year-old media trainer, said.
“When you travel abroad you always have to try and respect the local customs,” she said. “For LGBT people, certainly here, it means taking account of attitudes and laws and so I certainly won’t be hoping to break any laws or offend anybody.”
Russian police briefly detained British campaigner Peter Tatchell in Moscow last week after he protested near the Kremlin in support of gay rights.
Gay fans say they feel increasingly comfortable at games in England, where more than 40 clubs have versions of their insignia in the rainbow colours, Cunningham said.
The English Football Association has agreed to a similar version of its official flag after being approached by Cunningham and the Three Lions Pride group she leads.
But it can be a very different story elsewhere.
“The idea of coming to Russia or going to (2022 World Cup host) Qatar and supporting England is really quite difficult for an LGBT-plus fan,” Cunningham said. “I don’t know how many other fans who would be prepared to come.”
In a sign of how international football authorities are trying to crack down on homophobia, FIFA said on Sunday it was looking into reports of alleged offensive chants by Mexico fans during their country’s 1-0 World Cup win against Germany.
Cunningham hopes that bit by bit, attitudes are changing.
She said she made friends with fans from Sweden, Iceland, Australia, Peru and Mexico on her way to Volgograd.
“I cannot believe that those people wouldn’t be able to take messages of solidarity and togetherness back to their countries,” she said. “So all power to the World Cup wherever it’s held. It really does have the power to change things.”
England fan sails from Bulgaria to Russia for World Cup match
Fewer England fans made the journey to watch their team’s first World Cup match in Russia than some expected, but one made a special effort, sailing from Bulgaria to Volgograd in a yacht.
It took Graham Kentsley, originally from St Albans in Hertfordshire, just over five weeks to make the around 2,000 kilometre (1,243 miles) journey, which he timed so that he would arrive in good time for England’s first World Cup match against Tunisia in the southern Russia city of Volgograd.
“This idea has been hatching in my brain for a good number of years,” said Kentsley, speaking in a pub near the World Cup fan zone in Volgograd.
“It was always in my mind that we’d get there just before the football with the World Cup coming to town and that it would be fun.”
He will be watching England against Tunisia on Monday, he said, and attending other matches later in the tournament too.
Travelling aboard his 9.9 metre yacht “Sharlyn” with three other crew members, Kentsley set off from the end of the River Danube, traversed the Black Sea, and stopped off at Crimea, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.
He then sailed beneath a new bridge connecting Crimea to Russia which President Vladimir Putin opened, before crossing the Sea of Azov and sailing up the Volga-Don Canal to Volgograd, which is located around 900 kilometres south of Moscow.
The journey had sometimes been tough, he said, with the crew braving rough waters, an electrical storm, Russian bureaucracy and worried at one point that they would be stopped by the Ukrainian Navy.
In Crimea, which Ukraine wants back, he said the authorities allowed his yacht to moor in the harbour alongside Russian submarines.
Kentsley knows Volgograd well because he was once married to a native of the city which is famous for being the location of the Battle of Stalingrad, the bloodiest encounter of World War Two.
Only a small contingent of diehard English fans — estimated at up to 2,500 — have made the journey to see the start of their team’s World Cup campaign in Russia, with many others put off by fears of violence and a diplomatic crisis between London and Moscow.
Kentsley said he thought the poisoning of a former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury in March and the diplomatic crisis that triggered between Britain and Russia was largely to blame.
“I think if the Skripal business hadn’t happened we would have had 10,000 here,” he said.
“It happened at a critical moment.”