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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soccer Fans Await 'Match of Century'




Families are divided, police are on full alert and politicians are vying for their share of the spotlight. Saturday's Slavic showdown - when the Russian and Ukrainian national soccer teams square off to determine who will advance to the Euro 2000 championships - has passions running at an all-time high.


Saturday's qualifier, dubbed the "Battle of a Hundred Years" in Kiev and the "Match of the Century" in Moscow, is already slated to draw a sellout crowd of 80,000 soccer fans to Luzhniki Stadium.


Tickets were snapped up a week before the game - the fastest-ever sellout for the newly renovated stadium - and are reputedly going for up to $600 on the black market.


"If I could help with tickets I wouldn't be standing here," Sport Express newspaper quoted a policeman as saying while on duty at the stadium's ticket-less kiosk. "I'd be sitting in a Cadillac and smoking a huge cigar."


The hype surrounding Saturday's game - Ukraine's first chance at the European championships and a key opportunity for Russia to restore its flagging reputation on the world soccer stage after its humiliating failure to qualify for the 1998 World Cup - is built on more than just the qualifier. Both nations are eager to settle old scores and decide who's top dog in post-Soviet soccer.


The last decade of Soviet soccer was dominated by the Ukrainian school. But with the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia was handed the last spot allotted for World Cup qualifiers, leaving many of Ukraine's top-tier players no choice but to defect - amid cries of betrayal from their countrymen - to the Russian national team.


Now, however, it is the Ukrainian team - featuring bonafide stars like forward Andriy Shevchenko, who last week scored a hat trick for AC Milan in Italy's serie A - that is favored to advance to the 2000 championships. With 19 points for the season, compared to 18 for its two group rivals Russia and France, Ukraine need only draw on Saturday to assure its ascension into the championship playoffs.


The potential for humiliation has put some Russian nerves on edge. Local fans are likely to welcome their opponents with calls of khokhli, the derisive term for Ukrainians, and salo, the spiced pork fat that is popular in Ukraine.


To add volume to the grudge match, Ukraine grumbled recently about moving the match to a neutral venue because of the recent lethal bombings in Moscow.


"It was offensive," Russian coach Oleg Romantsev said at a news conference at the team's training center just outside Moscow. "I'm certain the initiative came from a small group of people. We know the Ukrainian people and soccer players very well. They want to win honestly without any behind the scenes intrigue."


Josef Sabo, the Ukrainian coach, was slightly less generous, suggesting that Russian Soccer Union President Vyacheslav Koloskov could put pressure on the referee and sway the match.


"We understand beautifully what kind of authority Koloskov has in the football world," Sabo said in remarks reported by Itar-Tass. "But at the same time we trust that the English referee [officiating Saturday's match] won't stain his professional honor."


And even with the city already on a security alert after the recent explosions in Moscow, measures have been stepped up further in the wake of crowd trouble at a Russian premier division match last Saturday. CSKA Moscow fans tore up seats and the match was halted as the army's Dzerzhinsky division - which defended the White House in 1993 - and the local OMON battled with CSKA fans.


According to the Ukrainian Soccer Federation, 10,000 fans are expected from Kiev. Following standard practice in such potentially troublesome matches, the police will escort them from the train station to the stadium. The head of one local fan group, Igor, warned that the visitors would be well-advised to stick close to their escorts.


"If any Ukrainians get away from the police, then there's going to be some fighting," he said in a telephone interview.


Another fan likely to get a police escort is Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, one of many Russian politicians expected at the match.


The people's game has always attracted politicians. In 1947, Stalin ordered an investigation into why army team CDKA, now called CSKA, lost games on a tour of Czechoslovakia, while feared NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria was said to have sent players from rival teams to the gulag to help his team win the league. A referee who had once sent off Beria during his days as an amateur player in Georgia reputedly lived in fear of retribution for the rest of his life.


Things may not be quite so drastic now, but President Boris Yeltsin was growling his disapproval after Russia failed to qualify for the last World Cup, saying "something must be done." Three games and three losses into Russia's European Championship qualifiers, soccer fan and then Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov was promising the government would help the Russian sport "to the best of its abilities."


Six games, six victories and two prime ministers later, help hasn't arrived, but the team is poised on the verge of qualification nonetheless.


The man to thank for that is Romantsev, coach of both the national team and Russia's richest club, Spartak Moscow. Romantsev is rumored to be on the list of new political movement Unity, Izvestia newspaper reported Thursday.


It's not much better in Ukraine. Phone up the Ukrainian Soccer Federation and ask for the president, Valery Pustovoitenko, and you're politely told that he's rather busy at the moment - what with being the prime minister of Ukraine.


"Politicians own Ukrainian football," said Katya Gorchinskaya, a political reporter for the Kiev Post.