They lobbied hard to win the prestige of hosting a Champions League final in Moscow, but now the Russian authorities are wondering if they have scored a spectacular own goal. The problem is that there is a good chance of two English teams contesting the match for the first time – which would mean the nightmare of at least 45,000 visas to process in a short space of time.
The Russian embassy in London usually issues 60,000 in a year. But it will face a tsunami of applications if Manchester United beat Barcelona on Tuesday night to earn a place in the final on 21 May. Either Liverpool or Chelsea will be their opponents.
Relations between Russia and Britain are already at their chilliest since the Cold War, but now the prospect of bureaucratic chaos, coupled with the fear of violence from frustrated fans, make the showpiece event look like a diplomatic disaster waiting to happen.
Accommodation is an even bigger problem. Moscow recently came top of a survey of the world's most expensive hotel rooms, with the average bill for a night coming in at £250. But even those willing to pay through the nose will be disappointed, with travel agents reporting that there is not a single hotel room left in Moscow for the night of the final. Given that the game does not kick off until 10.45pm local time, this is likely to mean thousands of drunken fans with nowhere to sleep.
They will also have Russian hooligans to deal with, many of whom model their "firms" on 1970s English football hooligans. "We've all read books and seen films about the Chelsea Headhunters, and other English firms," said one Spartak Moscow fan, "and people can't wait to test themselves against the best and most violent supporters in the game." Then there is the fearsome Omon riot police to contend with. Likely to be present in their thousands at the game, they have no qualms about using violence to quell trouble. In Moscow, a Manchester United vs Liverpool final is considered the most dangerous outcome.
A spokesman for the British embassy in Moscow said that the mission was looking at "a range of measures to make sure people have an enjoyable time", but said that the largest part of the organisation of the event was down to the Russian authorities. He praised the handling of the England-Russia game that was played last October in the capital, despite the fact that some English fans ended up in hospital after fights with locals. But that game was of a different magnitude, with fewer than 5,000 fans coming from England.
At Russian insistence, the four teams in the semi-finals have already started ticketing procedures, without knowing whether they will be playing in Moscow. In London, the Russian embassy has promised an easier application system for fans who have tickets, saving on the invitation letters and paperwork normally required for visa applicants. But the embassy may struggle to meet the surge in demand, and London travel agents are warning clients planning to do business in Russia this year to get applications in straight away.
Renovations have been made to Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium (formerly Lenin Stadium) in preparation for the game. Most notably, real grass will be laid on top of the usual artificial surface. Spartak Moscow host FC Moscow today in the last game to be played before the pitch is altered.
Chelsea have special connections with Russia because of their owner, Roman Abramovich. Besides the travelling supporters, hordes of rich Russia-based fans are expected to want tickets if their team qualifies: one Moscow agent said he had received many inquiries, with callers not put off by his starting price of £2,000. The new Russian rich will not want for places to sleep, or be allowed to see the trouble – and they will be able to join Mr Abramovich in a rare chorus of "Football's coming home".Reuse content