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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Irish Fans Flock to Town for Qualifier

The number of Irish in Moscow will multiply by a factor of at least 25 this weekend as thousands of soccer fans fly into town for Russia's first European Championship qualifier. The Republic of Ireland plays Russia on Saturday at Lokomotiv Stadium.

Some 5,000 Irish fans are flying in for the game, the Irish Embassy said. About 4,000 fans were coming from Ireland, while the rest were Irish expats living in Europe, the CIS and beyond, Russian soccer officials said. At least two fans staying at the Moskva hotel had flown in from New York.

The influx drastically boosts the small Irish expat population, which is estimated at no more than 150.

"They're coming from Kazakhstan, from Vladivostok," said Brian Hanniffy, a marketing consultant from Galway, Ireland, who has lived in Moscow for three years. "They're all making their way here. It's going to be an amazing weekend."

The match is attracting more than just the Irish. Hanniffy, who has a Russian wife, has bought 20 tickets from the Irish Football Association, for a mixture of Irish, English, Scottish, Welsh, Canadian and Russian friends who want to sit among the Irish fans.

Silvers, like other local Irish pubs, was expecting a boom weekend. The pub filled up early in the afternoon Thursday as fans who had arrived early popped in for refreshments.

"Look at the head on that," said one fan as a waitress brought out a pint of Guinness with a head stretching a third of the way down the glass. "That'll be sent back soon."

"You could fit a cabbage in that," added another fan cryptically.

"It's a great city and a great people," said Mick Flynn, a coach driver from Tipperary who had just been guided to the Arbat by a Muscovite wanting to practice her English.

"And great women. Even the ugly ones look good," he said, jokingly. "I'm amazed at the hospitality here."

Russia is not as exotic as it may have been a few years ago, fans said, as an increasing number of Russians are now working or living in Ireland.

Flynn recalled how he was wandering around lost in the country 12 kilometers from Tipperary when he stopped two young men to ask for directions. The men turned out to be Russian.

"They looked as if they were born and raised in Tipperary, the Wellington boots, the trousers, even the straw in the mouth," Flynn said.

He said 50 children from the radiation-polluted area around Chernobyl also visit Tipperary every year and stay with Irish families.

As he was talking, Paddy Kelly, a pensioner, also from Tipperary, recalled how he used to play on the same soccer team -- the New York Shamrocks -- as Alexander Solzhenitsyn's interpreter Michael Scammel when he lived in the United States.

Although there will probably be a heavy police presence at Saturday's game, the traveling Irish fans have a great reputation for their friendliness. A number of Russians who aren't normally soccer fans will have seats at the match among the Irish fans. Hanniffy said Silvers bar was arranging for a large number of Irish fans to sit together among the Russian fans. "The Irish have never had any trouble," Kelly said.

Ireland, which had a far more successful World Cup than Russia, is the favorite to win Group 10, which also contains Georgia, Switzerland and Albania. The group winner automatically qualifies for the European Championship, with the runner-up going into a playoff.

Both sides, though, are missing key players for not the usual reasons of injury of loss of form. Ireland will be without estranged former captain Roy Keane, who was expelled from the team at the World Cup after a clash with coach Mick McCarthy. Russia will be missing striker Dmitry Sychyov, who was left out of the squad after his traumatic exit from Spartak.

Russia will also be missing injured captain Yegor Titov and striker Ruslan Pimenov in new coach Valery Gazzayev's first competitive game.

Most fans seemed surprised at Russian goalkeeper Ruslan Nigmatullin's assertion that the Irish team was dirty.

"They try to hit you in the back, hit you from behind, use their elbows, all that stuff, so we have to be careful," Nigmatullin said Tuesday. He played against Ireland in a friendly in Dublin earlier this year.

"He's talking rubbish," Kelly said. "As [Mick] McCarthy said, 'How many red cards did we get at the World Cup? None.'"

The match, which some reports had said could be called off because of haze, will go ahead, Russian soccer officials said Thursday.

"It's absolutely terrible," Flynn said of the haze, before adding, "Dublin was like that two years ago."

Russia vs. Ireland, Lokomotiv Stadium, Metro Cherkizovskaya. Tickets are on sale at the stadium, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., 250 rubles to 750 rubles. The Irish Embassy has opened a 24-hour emergency hotline for fans at 232-6000.