Tagged: skripal

Send Us Victorious (But Leave Your Politics at Home)

A week before the World Cup began in Russia and two weeks before their first game, the bars of London were ready for the tournament. “RUSSIA 2018” and “Live-streaming of all matches” signs took over the usual happy hour streetside boards. At the embassy, fans picked up brochures on Russia and enquired on the status of their fan visas at the service centre.

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“Are you going to see England play?” an excited fan asked me as he waited in line with other British citizens waiting to pick up their Fan IDs. Despite all the warnings, England’s coming to Russia, I thought. Upon my return to Moscow, it was evident that this wasn’t quite the case.

Back in Russia at England’s first match at Volgograd, fans from as far as China and the United States made up a reported stadium attendance of 43,064. But the couple of thousand English fans reported present were far from dominant.

“I support England because I lived there before,” a Chinese fan told me on her way to the stadium, armed with a flag and face paint. It was glaringly obvious: While there was support for the Three Lions at that first match, much of it came from beyond England.    

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As early as March, government warnings were issued for Britons travelling to Russia for the World Cup. “Due to heightened political tensions between the U.K. and Russia, you should be aware of the possibility of anti-British sentiment or harassment at this time,” the Foreign Office said in a statement. 

The warning came after Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, was found slumped on a park bench next to his daughter in the quiet cathedral city of Salisbury. Investigators pointed to a Russian-made chemical agent.

In response, Prime Minister Theresa May rallied European Union allies, the United States and several NATO member states to respond. Between them, more than 100 Russian diplomats were expelled. (Russian President Vladimir Putin has dismissed the allegations. Had it been us, he says, it’s inconceivable that Skipal and his daughter would have survived.) 

 

“[We had] the English government saying ‘don’t go, we can’t guarantee your safety.’ We [had] no royals visiting, which is very, very disappointing.”

Adding to the fear and tension were British tabloids spitting out reports of death threats from Russian ultras, concerns of Kremlin agents blackmailing fans and memories of clashes in Marseille during the 2016 European Championship finals. And right smack in the middle of the World Cup, two British citizens were found critically ill from Novichok poisoning, the same nerve agent used in the Skripal poisoning, and in the same area as the first incident. 

But for Phil Thomas, 34, his experience in Russia was no different from previous visits during less volatile times. “There’s a lot of talk back in the U.K. about relations with Russia being at an all time low, but that [hasn’t manifested] in how people are,” says Thomas.

“We were walking around Red Square in our England shirts, going to different bars, and people [have been] extremely hospitable.”

Meanwhile, news of distasteful behaviour from the English side was present but limited, as videos of fans making Nazi salutes came under investigation and reports of two arrests for rowdiness on a Russian train made their rounds. A statue of a Soviet football star was vandalised with “England” scrawled across it, with the guilty Brit having since apologised. As far as a look back on the World Cup goes, this has been the worst of football-related conflict between the two countries. 

“[To me,] English people have always had the same kind of generosity and respect extended to them by Russian people,” says Andrew Rayton, 46, who has lived in Moscow for three years. “I haven’t noticed any change in that. If anything, it’s improved.”

 

You can find the bad stories if you want to find the bad stories.

 

For Darren Hull, 50, this first trip to Russia proved to be a surprising contrast to opinions back home. “Everyone said that I must be mad,” says Hull. Still, Hull stood proud with an Aston Villa flag, bringing English football and its culture to a new land. “We met a police officer who’s going to give me his police hat for my son in England, who’s [also] a police officer, as a momento,” he says.

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Beyond his positive experiences though, Hull has been disappointed with the decisions of his government.

“[We had] the English government saying ‘don’t go, we can’t guarantee your safety.’ We [had] no royals visiting, which is very, very disappointing.”

As tensions continue between the governments of both countries, a different story continues: There are longer ways to go yet with both Russia and England now driven towards greater international football success, riding on their recent achievements and the revived hopes of their fans.

On the day of the World Cup finals, I spoke to Reverend Malcolm Rogers, the Chaplain of St. Andrew’s Anglican church in Moscow, who hopes that the tournament will provide a different perspective to what’s usually reported on Russia.

“You can find the bad stories if you want to find the bad stories, and there are lots of them, but it’s unbalanced,” he says. “It doesn’t present the other side.”

Beyond how each country is presented by the media, Rev. Rogers hopes that public impressions will start to change, too: For Russia, that it’s a good thing to have tourists around. For the U.K., that Russia is a place you can visit.

“What I really hope for is that tourist visas on both sides will become much easier to get,” he adds. “It’s good for [Russia’s] image, it’s good for the economy.”

Later that night the World Cup came to an end with a French victory. That same evening, Putin publicly spoke about extending visa-free travel for fans who had obtained a Fan ID for the tournament until the end of the year.   

 

 

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