Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Ex-KGB fugitive joins English football invasion (SN)

Thousands of excited English football fans thronged Moscow on Wednesday for the Champions League final between Chelsea and Manchester United, where one of Britain’s most wanted men was also expected.

Ex-KGB officer Andrei Lugovoi, suspected by British police of the 2006 radiation murder in London of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko, was to attend the match, as was Chelsea’s billionaire owner Roman Abramovich.

Chanting fans walked around Red Square — the site of a military parade including tanks and nuclear missiles earlier this month — and the Luzhniki stadium on the outskirts of the city centre in largely peaceful scenes.

There were some reports of brawls in the city centre and Interfax news agency quoted Russia’s Manchester United fan club as saying some 50 Russian hooligans had attacked a group of English fans, injuring two of them.

But the mood was mostly upbeat, with some fans donning Russian fur hats and taking pictures of themselves alongside police officers and soldiers.

Officials said up to 50,000 English fans were expected in the Russian capital. Many complained, however, on Internet forums about prices in Moscow and some said they would come in by train from cheaper European destinations.

More than 14,000 officers were deployed in Moscow for the match to ensure security, officials were quoted by Russian news agencies as saying. Eighteen British police officers with experience of the two clubs also assisted.

“We’ve had a couple of isolated reports of disturbances,” said a spokesman for the British embassy, which has worked together with Russian officials on match preparations despite frosty official relations between the two countries.

Some fans complained about the strict alcohol ban in place in the area around the stadium and on Red Square as part of the elaborate security precautions in place to avoid any crowd violence.

“We didn’t get our drink on to Red Square. The police banned it, but apart from that it’s great,” said Manchester United fan Parmy Singh, who flew in on Wednesday and planned to stay up all night to avoid sky-high hotel prices.

City authorities set up a football pitch for fans with the Champions League cup in a glass case next to Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin’s tomb on Red Square.

Also on the square, located next to the Kremlin, traders tried to tempt fans with nesting matryoshka wooden dolls depicting stars such as Wayne Rooney.

For any fans managing to overdo the drink despite the ban, a city detox centre said its bunks were available to those in need of treatment for a mere 100 rubles (4.20 euros/6.70 dollars), Interfax news agency reported.

Lugovoi, who is now a member of parliament and whom Russia has refused to extradite to Britain, said he would be cheering Abramovich’s Chelsea and added that hosting the Champions League final was good for Russia’s image.

“Russia is showing all Europe that it is an open state and has caused no visa problems,” he was quoted as saying, referring to an unprecedented order by President Dmitry Medvedev that waived visa requirements for fans with tickets.

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