Day trippers

Problems when England visited Moscow suggested the Champions League final could be a mess, but Chelsea fan Terry Daley enjoyed more or less his whole excursion except the result and the trip home

Much had been made of Moscow by the British press in the run-up to the Champions League final, and none of it made particularly good reading for those of us who had started planning trips to the Russian capital 30 minutes after Liverpool were beaten in the semi-final at Stamford Bridge. Supposedly English supporters would have to contend with baton‑happy military police and hordes of neo-Nazi hooligans patrolling the streets. Then we would be forced to pay £25 a beer at gunpoint by a one-eyed veteran of the Afghanistan war – if our pockets hadn’t already been picked by a shoeless orphan. Why didn’t they just cancel the whole operation, moaned the English press, and move the damn thing to Wembley?

Being greeted at Vnukovo airport on the south-western outskirts of the city by a load of uninterested baby-faced soldiers playing sudoku went some way to allaying any fears that the day was going to be a violent bloodbath. Then, the speed with which we got into the centre of town – about an hour – was impressive for what was supposed to be a poorly policed war zone.

In fact, pretty much everything about our arrival in Moscow confounded all the pre-match bluster – the atmosphere around Red Square was jovial, with both sets of fans getting on pretty well, and the famed Russian military were noticeable only for their extreme friendliness. We weren’t herded into holding pens like cattle nor were we ripped off.

What was noticeable was the enormous gaps between rich and poor and the close proximity within which the two coexist, a point that was slammed home when our group took a stroll to find somewhere to eat. Sandwiched between two main thoroughfares that had the usual combination of street vendors, football fans wandering around aimlessly, was a gated cobbled street packed with the most expensive and exclusive shops imaginable. It was an odd little oasis of affluence in an otherwise reassuringly grubby part of town.

Notwithstanding the spirit-crushing defeat on penalties (again), getting home was a somewhat less joyous experience. Due to people not being allocated a specific flight home, there was a huge bun fight at Vnukovo for seats on planes. Amid all the confusion, anger and fatigue, it was clear that no one there had a clue what was going on, least of all the Thomas Cook employees charged with the task of getting several thousand football fans out of the country. To make matters worse, a plane that had been chartered for Chelsea staff took off half-empty, meaning that a hundred-odd bewildered club associates were fighting to get on planes that were allocated for fans.

We were the lucky ones – after leaving the ground 20 minutes after the end of the match, we didn’t take off for Gatwick until 5.20am, on the second to last plane. Some fans would have been treated to the sight of a bewildered-looking Peter Bonetti and Ron Harris being squeezed up in the huge crush for a plane. The chaos was an appropriate end to what had become a sombre experience. But it could have been worse – I might not have been there at all.

From WSC 257 July 2008