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Russia: Moscow Prepares For British Soccer Invasion As It Promotes Image As World-Class Sporting Capital

Chelsea fans arrive in Moscow (AFP) Moscow is bracing for the arrival of thousands of fans for the all-English UEFA Champions League final on May 21.

Some 50,000 English fans are expected to watch Manchester United vie against Chelsea at the Russian capital's vast Luzhniki stadium. Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich is the owner of Chelsea.

In Moscow, the supporters face sky-high prices, a severe shortage of hotel rooms, and heavy police scrutiny. But they consider themselves lucky -- despite mounting diplomatic tensions with Britain, Russia has exceptionally agreed to waive visa requirements for all British citizens holding match tickets.

The decision was met with a sigh of relief among fans reluctant to navigate Russia's notoriously cumbersome visa regime. Peter Trenter, the co-vice chairman of the Chelsea Supporters Group, which helps supporters deal with travel arrangements, said: "I think it had to be done, really. There was no way we were going to have that amount done in that sort of time. I think it's a very wise decision."

City On Show

The match is a milestone for Russia, too -- it's the biggest sporting event the city has hosted since the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

According to Russian Football Union spokesman Igor Vladimirov, that's precisely what prompted Russia to grant English supporters special treatment.

"One needs to understand that this is the first time an event as high-profile as the Champions League final has taken place in Russia. So obviously, both the country's sports and political authorities are eager for it to go as well as possible in terms of organization, comfort, and facilities," Vladimirov said. "This explains our decision to make concessions, we understand how many people will travel here from England."

City authorities have certainly vowed to pull out all the stops. They have mobilized hundreds of specially painted buses to carry fans from the city's airports to the stadium and pledged to have English interpreters around the stadium, in the metro, and on Red Square, which has been turned into a "soccer city" where enthusiasts can take part in contests and master classes, and catch a glimpse of the cherished European Cup.

The match comes as Russia celebrates a string of sporting victories.

St. Petersburg soccer club Zenit last week won the UEFA Cup against Glasgow Rangers in Manchester. And on May 18, Russia defeated Canada in the ice hockey World Championship, taking gold for the first time since 1993. On the tennis court, Russian star Maria Sharapova became the sport's top-ranked female player this week with the retirement of Justine Henin.

In recent years, the Kremlin has used booming oil revenues to raise the nation's sports profile. The Russian Black Sea resort Sochi last year won the right to host the 2014 Winter Olympics after then-President Vladimir Putin personally lobbied for Sochi's bid.

Kevin O'Flynn, a reporter for "The Moscow Times" who regularly covers sporting events in Russia, says the country's efforts ahead of the UEFA Champions League final suggests its appetite for such events is far from sated.

"The Champions League final is a big showcase event for Russia and for Moscow, and it's obviously part of Russia's attempt to revive sport. They've got the Sochi Olympics, they need this Champions League final to go well, to be a success so that this can build on that and maybe bid for further tournaments, maybe the European Championship or the World Cup," O'Flynn says.

Frayed Ties

The match takes places on the backdrop of frayed ties between Russia and Britain, and many view Moscow's move to drop visa rules as an attempt to mend fences with London.

Britain has angered Russia by refusing to extradite Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky and Chechen separatist Akhmed Zakayev. Moscow, in turn, has rebuffed British requests to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, Britain's prime suspect in the London murder of former Russian security officer Aleksandr Litvinenko.

And in December, Russian authorities shut down all regional branches of the British Council, a state-funded organization promoting British culture and language abroad.

Oligarch Abramovich is the owner of Chelsea

Political analyst Yevgeny Volk, who heads the Moscow office of the U.S. Heritage Foundation, says that it is a political decision.

"I think it comes from the realization that Russian-British relations are at a dead end, that they've hit rock-bottom, and that this is harming not only political but also economic ties. I think [President Dmitry] Medvedev wants to send a signal that Russia is ready to take some steps toward normalizing relations," Volk says.

Whatever the motives behind Russia's gesture, Muscovites are now bracing for the English invasion.

Some are excited and proud to host thousand of foreign football supporters, but others are worried to event will spiral into violence. Andrei Rodionov, a Russian supporter of the Liverpool soccer club who has attended numerous matches in Britain, says English soccer fans are certainly more unruly than their Russian counterparts.

"It's bit different here, as far as I'm concerned. In general, the supporters here tend to behave quieter. There's always a hard-core group of supporters, but they are little kids compared to some of the English football supporters," Rodionov says.

Fears Of Violence

Pavel and Vitaly, two Muscovites working for an air-conditioning company, say they're ready to give the English fans the benefit of the doubt: "We've never seen any English fans, but they are said to be the most aggressive. We don't know whether that's true, however, so we're not afraid. Maybe if we get in trouble we'll be scared next time!"

But Moscow authorities have made it clear they will not tolerate any violence.

More than 2,000 police and Interior Ministry troops will be on duty for the match, with another 5,000 deployed across the city. Authorities have sought to minimize scuffles by directing charter flights of the two clubs to separate airports.

The deputy head of the Moscow police, General Vyacheslav Kozlov, vowed not to allow any replay of the unrest that followed the UEFA Cup final in Manchester last week, when Glasgow Rangers fans clashed with police after a giant screen broadcasting the match in the city center broke down.

More than 40 people were detained and a Russian fan was stabbed in the back before the start of the game, which Zenit St. Petersburg won 2-0.

On the whole, however, English fans have drastically improved their behavior in recent years after British authorities launched a tough campaign on soccer hooliganism.

Beside, says O'Flynn, English supporters are unlikely eager to ruffle the feathers of Russia's infamously brutal police.

"From the fans I've spoken too, I don't think there's much eagerness for fights in Moscow when a lot of fans have been warned that the police are not willing to use soft methods and will be quite happy to throw them into jail or use force if hooligans cause trouble in the streets. Probably the only danger is if fans of CSKA or Spartak are looking to prove that they are as tough as the English fans," O'Flynn says.

RFE/RL correspondent Chloe Arnold contributed to this report

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