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Russia finds way to control English soccer fans

WashPost: Thousands of English soccer fans descended on Moscow on Wednesday for the Champions League final only to be quick-marched into and out of a city they barely had time to glance at.
Russia Soccer Champions Final Fans
Under the watchful eye of police, Manchester United fans leave Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow early Thursday after the team won the Champions League final against Chelsea.Mikhail Metzel / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Thousands of English soccer fans descended on Moscow on Wednesday only to be quick-marched into and out of a city they barely had time to glance at.

They had come for European soccer's biggest night, the final of the Champions League, which is held in a different European city each year. The league pits the best clubs from across the continent against each other over the course of a long campaign.

And this year, for the first time, two English teams, Manchester United and the London club Chelsea, ended up in the final.

So city officials, wary of what the Russian news agency ITAR-Tass called the "aggressive habits" of English soccer fans, deployed 14,500 police officers across the city, including 6,000 in and around Luzhniki Stadium. Police lines even extended into the stadium toilets to direct a one-way traffic of fans at halftime.

Dozens of charter flights from Manchester and London landed Wednesday at the city's three airports. The fans were quickly funneled onto 700 buses and driven on cleared lanes with police escorts to alcohol-free holding areas near the stadium.

"Didn't see much of Moscow, but that wasn't the point," said Tom Kelly, a Manchester fan.

Some fans did manage to break away from their Russian minders. They made their way to see the Champions League cup that was on display in Red Square, where a small soccer pitch was set up near Lenin's tomb.

"Fantastic place," said Andy McGarrie, a 45-year-old United supporter. Asked what else he wanted to see besides the Kremlin, McGarrie replied: "The bars, basically."

When the game was over (United won after a penalty shootout), the fans were driven back to the airport and led back onto the planes.

After the semifinals last month, it quickly became clear that the Russian Embassy in London would not be able to process the huge number of visas that fans were going to want. So parliament quickly passed a law allowing the president to issue a decree lifting the normal visa regime for specific groups. Soccer fans were declared to be such a group.

"We have acted like a civilized state," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said of the temporary visa-free regime. "The attitude of a country towards the conditions on which participants in international events may visit it shows how civilized it is."

More than 40,000 English fans entered the country with just a match ticket and a passport. "It couldn't have been easier," said Tom Barry, a 54-year-old Chelsea fan from London. "From the fan's point of view, it was a great decision. Not so good for those people who had already bought their visas. But it saved me 70 pounds" — about $140.

The British Embassy thanked the Russians for their "sporting cooperation."

And those were probably the kindest words exchanged by the two countries in 18 months. Relations chilled after Russia refused to extradite Andrei Lugovoy, a former KGB officer who is accused of the London murder of Alexander Litvinenko, another former KGB agent and a critic of Vladimir Putin, then Russia's president and now its prime minister. Litvinenko died in November 2006 after being poisoned with a radioactive substance.

Lugovoy, who has since been elected to the Russian parliament, said Wednesday that he planned to be at the game and root for Chelsea — like most of the Russians in the 70,000-capacity stadium.

Chelsea, or Chelski as some call it, is owned by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, who divides his time among London, Moscow and the remote region of Chukotka, in Russia's far north, where he is governor. Abramovich has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the club, buying some of the world's best talent.

But Manchester United, which is owned by the U.S. sports tycoon Malcolm Glazer, is that little bit better at the moment. United had already beaten Chelsea for this year's English league title, the second year in a row it has done so.

Wednesday night's game ended 1-1 after both regular and extra time. European club soccer's most coveted prize was finally sealed after an excruciating series of penalty kicks, which United won, 6-5.