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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

United Russia's Fair-Weather Football Fans

Anyone hoping to get a ticket for the crucial Oct. 17 football match between Russia and England would have had to get up very early Monday morning -- with the exception, of course, of top United Russia officials.

More than a thousand people had already put their names on the list for tickets days before the sales office opened Monday, said Anzhela Biryukova, the spokeswoman for the match at Luzhniki stadium, and thousands are expected to wait in line for hours for the last 10,000 tickets on sale.

Spicing the story up a bit is the fact that the match is taking place just two months before the State Duma elections. The pro-Kremlin United Russia party is a good bet to try to use the game as a vehicle to boost its support ahead of the Dec. 2 vote.

The crucial qualifying match for the 2008 European Football Championship is the most anticipated football game in Moscow since Russia played Slavic neighbor Ukraine in 1999. Russia needs a win to have any chance at qualifying for next year's tournament in Austria and Switzerland.

Most of the tickets were sold before Monday through fan clubs and applications by mail. The postal sale attracted more than half a million requests. Luzhniki stadium has a capacity of about 80,000.

There may be quite a few politicians among the 80,000 in attendance. Four years ago, when the Russian national team won 4-1 against Switzerland in a European Championship qualifying game, United Russia was brazen in its attempts to associate itself with football success.

National television stations led the late-night news with reports featuring United Russia leaders Boris Gryzlov -- then the interior minister -- Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, and federal sports agency head Vyacheslav Fetisov cheering on the home side from their VIP box at Lokomotiv stadium.

After the game, the three United Russia leaders flanked national team coach Georgy Yartsev, also a member of United Russia, in a post-game interview with Channel One television.

A government official admitted Friday that United Russia used the victory four years ago as a public relations exercise.

"During the last election campaign, United Russia members watched the first half of the game on television and, when they saw the team was winning, went to the stadium just to be caught by the television cameras," said the official, who asked not to be identified. "I think it will be the same this time."

"I'm talking about the big names," he added.

Some in the sports world have grown weary of the opportunistic interest from political figures.

"Maybe some are actually interested in football, but [most] go to games to show off, to show that they are close to the people," said football historian Aksel Vartanyan, singling out former President Boris Yeltsin as a politician who took the populist sports approach.

On the other hand, Vartanyan said, Leonid Brezhnev was a real fan. Never having to worry about getting elected, Brezhnev actually had games delayed until he could arrive, leaving fans sitting around wondering about the holdup.

This time out, it's unlikely that even President Vladimir Putin could delay the start of the match against England.

Politicians, government ministries and bureaucrats have been scrambling for tickets ahead of the game, the Russian Football Union said. Judging by the numbers trying to use their pull to get seats, this is not just restricted to those important enough to end up on camera if Russia takes the lead.

"The biggest problem is the VIPs, the deputies, the senators," union spokesman Andrei Malosolov said. "They are the most disgruntled and ask for tickets at the last minute."

Media analysts agreed Friday that United Russia would use every opportunity to get on camera.

"They will use even the smallest opportunity to get media attention," said Irina Petrovskaya, a media analyst who writes a column for Izvestia.

If Russia wins, state television will show "live reports" of United Russia members jumping around and celebrating, said Anna Kachkayeva, a media analyst with Radio Free Europe.

"This, of course, won't be counted as part of the election campaign," Kachkayeva added.

Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, who has spent much of the time since his appointment last month traveling around various regions in what some see as early campaigning for presidential elections in May, will be in attendance, Malosolov said. Putin is also a possibility, he added.

Zubkov's press service said Friday that it did not know whether the prime minister was planning to attend.

Of course, for the game to be of any public relations value, the match result will have to be a positive one. Russia, however, is the clear underdog going into the game, after having been trounced by England 3-0 last month in London. So some politicians may opt for watching the first half on television again -- just to be safe.

Gryzlov, now Duma speaker, has not decided whether he will attend, his aide Oleg Zholabov said Friday.

"He is busy with the election campaign and has a heavy schedule," Zholabov said. "But it is 100 percent sure he will watch the game on television."

Gryzlov's decision was not linked to the fact that Russia was playing against England, a stronger team than Switzerland, Zholabov said.

"He really is very busy," he said.