Sure, some might point to the hosting of the G8 Summit or the selection of Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics as the climatic moment of national pride for the country’s resurgence, but for many ordinary Russian sports fans, the kick-off in about three hours of the Champion’s League Final Match between Manchester United and Chelsea means so much more that. It is the biggest football (soccer) game of the year, and millions will be tuning in to have a look at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, while the city logs a record number of British visitors. Leaving aside for the moment the well-practiced discussion over whether or not Russia deserves to host such high profile events, or whether such exposure is a good thing to help bring further pressure to bear upon the authoritarian abuses of the state, this event already looks like it’s shaping up a be a watershed for UK-Russia relations (as well as a hell of an exciting match). There’s only one monkeywrench thrown into this nice bit of sports diplomacy: Andrei Lugovoi wants to go.
Up until this little bump, the Russians were being as nice as possible to the British fans with regard to the Final match, a change in attitude which not surprisingly comes along with the inauguration of the new president. Robert Amsterdam has an earlier post on this subject, on the engagement strategy of Russia reaching directly out to the British public with the generous gesture of relaxing visa requirements. The same courtesy was not extended to the Russian fans of Zenit St. Petersburg, who perhaps were even more satisfied that their ethnically-Russian dominated team thrashed the Glasgow Rangers, whose supporters rioted in protest afterward.However the announcement of Lugovoi, the accused polonium murderer of Alexander Litvinenko whose extradition is still outstanding, is a clear reversal of any attempt by the authorities to thaw relations. Regardless of one’s position on this affair, it seems to be an ill-timed and poorly thought out gesture which could cancel the opportunity for the British and Russians to put down their disputes for an afternoon of football.How do we know that Russia wants to use the Man U.-Chelsea match as an instrument of political relations? Because the state-owned media is telling us so…I wonder if star players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, and Frank Lampard are aware they might accomplish more in one afternoon than former British Ambassador Sir Anthony Brenton was able to get done during his post to Moscow – at least I’m sure that the Nashi won’t be throwing eggs at the players or harassing them from sun up to sundown.But as the Moscow Times writes, perhaps Lugovoi just ended up with a ticket because there were so many available. Although the event planners had planned for as many as 50,000 British fans to come into the city for the match, the exorbitant prices for plane tickets and hotel rooms have turned many off.”If the match had been held in Rome or Barcelona, then United could have sold out the whole stadium by themselves, but now there will probably be sporadic empty seats,” a Manchester fan told the Moscow Times. Another fan interviewed compared the price of visiting Moscow for one game to be equivalent to a two-week cruise (upwards of 1,200 pounds sterling).So oddly, on Russia’s biggest day, despite all the warm sports diplomacy and thumb-nosing from Mr. Polonium, the stadium will still have many empty seats.