Football Frenzy

Moscow-based expat Martin Freeman has been supporting Manchester United for "as long as he can remember." But the fact that his team will be playing in the Champions League final in the city where he lives makes little difference to him: "I've kind of accepted it's impossible to get there, but I'm going to try." After all, not everyone can afford to fork out 40,000 rubles for a football ticket, a price that scalpers were offering to Chelsea and Manchester United supporters in Moscow.

Regardless of whether or not they have tickets, local fans of English football will still get some entertainment on May 21. Among an array of events, the British Council in Moscow is organizing a friendly on the big day between Spartak Moscow and Manchester United supporters under the umbrella of the Football Unites project. The best Russian player of the match will go to Manchester for a United match.

Manchester United fans, however, may have difficulty fielding a team of 11. "Most people are on day trips and will arrive at various times. They would rather go to the pubs and sightseeing than play football," said Andrew Kilduff, a Manchester United fan and one of the organizers of the match.

Barney Chilton, editor of Manchester United's fan magazine, Red News, complained about the bills the British were facing in the Russian capital. "Both air flights from the U.K. and hotels in Moscow -- if you were lucky enough to find a room -- are very expensive for us, so many United fans have decided to come for the day, at a cost equal to our season tickets for the whole of next year," he said. In an effort to trim expenses, many fans are taking ingenious routes, including coming on the train from Cologne or Riga. "United fans are always desperate to see their team play. Some would walk if they could!" Chilton said.

With an average room price in Moscow before the game reaching $500, the luckiest fans are ones with friends living in the city. Brian Tainter, a Chelsea supporter since 1986, is going to put up four fellow Chelsea fans at his apartment, including one flying in from Melbourne, but he will not be able to accommodate everyone. "I know at least 100 people who are coming," he said.

Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP
The football pitch at Luzhniki is readied for the game.
Tainter is now busy organizing a beer and barbeque party for Chelsea supporters at a restaurant off Leninsky Prospekt on Wednesday -- so far the only private Chelsea event in Moscow. The venue has a capacity of 300 people. More than 100 bookings have already been taken in Britain. "I'd like to be part of something dedicated to my fellow fans," Tainter explains. "People are scared of everything they hear in the press. It's great that they could go somewhere where they'll feel safe, have a beer, meet other fans, and won't have to worry about the police or taxis."

Unlike ticketless United fan Freeman, Tainter got his ticket for 120 euros in the team allocation scheme long before the game. Each finalist was able to take up to 21,000 tickets and distribute these directly to its supporters.

UEFA's network made 10,500 tickets avaiable to fans worldwide until mid-March. Tickets for Wednesday's final at Luzhniki are now on sale on ticket web sites starting at $500 (12,000 rubles).

Tainter admits that holding the match in any West European city would have made the game more accessible: "Moscow does not have a large number of carriers flying to the country. You can't fly to a European city from here for ?20." He is, however, supportive of Moscow's efforts to host something like the final of Europe's most coveted club football trophy: "It's a good opportunity for Russia to show that Moscow can hold an event of such scale." Red News Editor Barney Chilton agrees: "The European finals rotate, so it's only fair that Moscow gets its chance."

A lot of Moscow expatriates believe that the British press has scared away the fans. "The coverage was very negative," said Freeman, who has been living in Moscow for the past two years. "The last things I heard were about hooligans, the police and the hotels." Tainter was more blunt: "The fans do have safety concerns, probably because the British press tells a lot of stories about corruption and the police. The British press wants to give an opinion of Russia as a police state."

In an unprecedented step, Russian authorities have allowed British football fans to use match tickets as entry visas. "It was a great decision, which helped us all," Chilton said.

Tainter said there was not enough information support from the Russian side. "There's still confusion about what it's going to look like. I'm getting 30 plus e-mails a day from people asking, 'Do we need a visa to get there?' and 'How many days you need to stay to need to get a visa?'"

Officially, all football supporters traveling to Moscow for the final and staying in the country from May 17 to 25 can get a visa by presenting a valid Champions League ticket. The biggest challenge, however, is not the visa but the fact that a one-day trip to Moscow would cost at least ?1,500.

Chilton, however, is optimistic. "United has played in Moscow before, and Volgograd, and those United fans who made both trips had a great time," he said. "Of course there were worries about visas, and the cost of the trips, but once we arrive we will be very excited for what is a massive game for us."