British Soccer Fans Invade Moscow, Then Get the Boot

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 22, 2008

MOSCOW, May 21 -- 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.

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