50,000 British Fans Coming to Town

After the jubilation comes the hassle. Now that their team has reached the European Cup final, thousands of football fans are scrambling to negotiate a notoriously harsh visa system as they search desperately for tickets to travel to the other side of Europe.

Once they get there, they face some of the highest prices on earth and the threat of violence from opposition fans renowned for their thuggery.

But enough about the problems of Zenit St. Petersburg fans, who will be heading to the City of Manchester Stadium in northern England to watch their team take on Glasgow Rangers in the UEFA Cup final next Wednesday.

A week later, an estimated 50,000 English football fans will come streaming — by plane, train and automobile — in the opposite direction. They will come to Moscow to watch Manchester United play Chelsea in the Champions League final at Luzhniki stadium on May 21.

Despite the diplomatic tensions between the two countries and Russian consulates in Britain facing an avalanche of visa applications, the government has agreed to UEFA requests to waive the visa requirements for English fans with match tickets, although the decision still has to be approved by the State Duma.

For fans, getting into Russia is just the first step. The severe shortage and sky-high prices of hotel rooms in Moscow have forced club supporters and travel agents to come up with some ingenious ideas for alternative accommodation.

Meanwhile, city authorities have promised to pull out all the stops, putting more than 700 specially painted buses into service to ferry the estimated 100 planeloads of fans from the airports to the stadium and turning Red Square into a festival of football. Enterprising local businesses, from ticket agencies to strip clubs, are also set to cash in on the English invasion.

Fears persist, however, that the combustible mixture of a local police force prone to heavy-handedness and fans full of cheap beer and vodka is a recipe for catastrophe.

"We don't expect any nightmares or turmoil," said Alexei Sorokin, the Moscow government official in charge of arrangements for the final. "We are ready and expect everything to go as planned."

The visa breakthrough came after President Vladimir Putin gave his personal approval Tuesday to a request from UEFA chief Michel Platini to let match tickets double as 72-hour visas. Each club has been allocated 21,000 tickets for their fans — with the remainder of Luzhniki's 80,000 seats being sold in Russia or distributed by UEFA.

"Everybody was worried that the Russian consulates would not be able to process an extra 40,000 visas," Sorokin said. "We were sure that they would cope, but decided to take this step anyway."

An estimated additional 10,000 English fans are expected to make the journey without tickets and will still need to get tourists visas, said Anton Borisenko, a spokesman for the Russian National Tourist Office, which was set to handle visas for match ticket holders before the decision to waive the requirement.

Despite pleas from both Zenit St. Petersburg and UEFA boss Platini for Britain to simplify visa procedures for Russian fans, British authorities have been less accommodating for fans headed to the UEFA Cup final.

"For the U.K. government, visas and biometric checks are a vital part of immigration policy, and we are not prepared to waive them," said Mandy Ivemy, Director for British Visa Services for the CIS.

British authorities are expecting around 8,500 fans to travel and, although additional personnel are working round the clock, Ivemy urged Russian fans with a guaranteed ticket to submit their visa application form immediately.

"Russia is doing whatever possible to facilitate entry to Russia by British fans, and we hope for reciprocity from the British authorities for Zenit fans," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. Peskov said it had not yet been decided which Russian officials would attend the game.

For British fans here, there is virtually no chance of booking one of the city's 70,000 hotel rooms during the spring peak season, said Gennady Lamshin, vice president of the Russian Hotel Association.

Moscow's hotel prices rank among the highest in the world, something for which Sorokin said foreign travel agencies were to blame.

"These hotel rooms were mostly booked and paid for six months ago," he said. "It is the travel agencies who are making money on this, and these are not Russian companies."

One enterprising British company has started selling hundreds of berths in three cruise ships to be moored on the Moscow River at Vodny Stadion, in the northwest of the city.

"This is purely a question of supply and demand, and this is the only way to boost the capacity in Moscow at short notice," said Steven Penney, a director at Select Travel, the company organizing the ships.

Even the floating hotels are not cheap. A one-berth room costs 420 euros, or about $650, for two nights. All the same, the rooms have been snapped up quickly and the company was forced to bring the third vessel in from Rostov-on-Don.

"The cost of the accommodation pales into insignificance in comparison to the charges for the flights, visas and getting a match ticket," Penney said.

One Russian agency was offering tickets on Tuesday starting at 2,500 euros, or about $3,850, while reports have put ticket prices at up to $10,000. Fans are being just as inventive in getting to Moscow, with some flying via Riga, Helsinki, St Petersburg and Dublin.

"We even have people driving all the way from Scotland to Moscow for the game," Penney said.

In line with UEFA requirements, opposing fans will arrive at separate airports, with Chelsea fans landing at Vnukovo and Sheremetyevo, while Manchester United fans fly into Domodedovo. Fans will be ferried to the stadium by 700 buses, daubed with the colors and emblems of the two teams.

On the days leading up to the match, beginning May 17th, Red Square will be taken over by UEFA's Champions Festival, with free entry to a minifield where football master classes will be offered.

The majority of Russian fans are likely to be cheering for Chelsea, which has fan clubs from Moscow to Anadyr, the capital of the far eastern Chukotka autonomous district, where club owner Roman Abramovich is governor.

Thousands of local officers and OMON units will be drafted in to police the final. A spokesman for the Moscow city police refused to comment on the issue, saying definitive plans would be announced after May 10.

City official Alexei Sorokin said there were no plans to curb the sale of alcohol ahead of the game. The sale of alcoholic beverages is prohibited near sporting venues.