KIEV, Ukraine—The English did not come to Kiev in droves. According to a few of them who milled about before the match with Sweden, their countrymen stayed away for two reasons: 1) The fear of racism and violence, fueled by the BBC's sensationalist Stadiums of Hate documentary, and 2) an unflinching belief that this English team is terrible, one of the worst ones in years.
Expectations are low, the potential danger meter high, and the fair-weather fans (the vast majority of England) stayed home, all the better to be surrounded by like-minded grousers. The English supporters' march to the stadium was just sad: 100 or so fans, at least as many police officers, and a woman wearing a Ukrainian flag bringing up the rear. A low point for hooliganism.
(That said, the English fans who are here offer excellent insults. To the Swedes, a friendly "You're tall, but your cocks are small.")
But by the time England beat Sweden 3-2—a result that left the Three Lions a draw away from advancing to the knockout stage of Euro 2012 and the Swedes out of contention—security at Kiev Olympic Stadium stood two deep and shoulder-to-shoulder facing four sections of rowdy red-and-white-clad supporters. Throughout the second half, the powers that be repeatedly deployed reinforcements, 20 at a time. What started at kickoff as 10 men and women in florescent vests swelled to 150, and every body was needed. When England scored, which they did on Theo Walcott's deflected strike and Danny Welbeck's wondergoal, the sea breached the stand as dozens of men (only men, always men) jumped down to the no-man's-land track surrounding the field. Stadium security pushed them back, gently at first, more forcefully as the match progressed, desperately attempting to contain the chaos. The occasional fan breaching the human barrier was tackled by a second layer of defense, grabbed by the arms and legs, and bundled back to his peers in the stands. The moat held.
Across the arena, a yellow and blue mass of Sweden supporters that was two or three times the size of the English fan section required a quarter the number of guards. Even that seemed unnecessary.
The majority of the Swedish contingent in Kiev is staying in Camp Sweden, a campground located on the wooded Trukhaniv Island. It previously saw use as low-cost accommodations for the hordes that descended on the 2005 Eurovision contest. A stand near the pedestrian bridge that connects the island to the mainland sells water, beer, and ice cream, and offers free copies of Sport-Expressen, a full-color Swedish paper that examines the country's sporting news in remarkable detail. (The day after Sweden lost to England pages 12 and 13 featured a four-frame action shot of manager Erik Hamren spiking a water bottle to the ground.)
Camp Sweden is spartan, 5,000 people staying in tents and the occasional RV. Plumbing is a luxury, so baths are taken in the Dnieper River and bathrooms are found wherever you can dig a pit. The New York Times' Jere Longman watched England-Sweden from there, chronicling the proceedings. This is all you need to know: "We don't care if there is no hot water," said Erik Karlsson, 21. "We are used to the cold; we are Vikings. We care more about the beer."
Camp Sweden offers plenty of diversions for its inhabitants, a few of them not dependent on beer. There are places to play soccer, beach volleyball, and other sports. WiFi costs $2 for an hour and $38 for the week. A massive viewing area features a large screen for watching the games, or—as the case was when I arrived the day after England-Sweden—a Rolling Stones concert. Campers can rent paintball guns, bikes, and a ride in a Soviet-era tank. Pretty Ukrainian women hold signs asking "How much free beer can you drink in an hour?" The only way to find out is to pay for an hour-long boat tour.
Sweden has no mathematical chance of advancing, so many people were packing up to start the 28-hour journey home on Saturday afternoon. They looked hung over or depressed, probably both, but also happy to have come to see their team play. They represented their country in the continent's biggest tournament. That mattered. They mattered. Hot water and electricity, less so.
The English supporters are not the worst group at the Euros. Croatia's fans are chanting like monkeys and throwing bananas, while the international media are praising the Russian hooligans for being not quite as terrible as they usually are. (Make no mistake, for a nation preparing to host the 2018 Wolrd Cup, this is a roaring success.)
But the display in Olympic Stadium felt so unnecessary, yet also inevitable. A small, humble group turned into a seething mass because that's what English fans do at matches. They mass, and they seethe. It doesn't matter who they are playing or how many of their countrymen stand beside them. When the Three Lions take the field, the crowd goes berserk, stands on the retaining wall, and attempts to storm the pitch. It's tradition, mate.
In the end, England won, Sweden lost, and the security guards won their battle with the English fans. As we walked away from the stadium alongside with thousands of disappointed Swedes, "We Will Rock You" echoed out of the arena. The English—still standing in their seats, eyed warily by the tired staff—were chanting along. "We Will, We Will, Rock You!" They always will, even if the reasons for doing so are not entirely clear.
Noah Davis (@noahedavis) is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.