Wednesday 14 November, 2018

England fans trickling into Moscow for World Cup semifinals

An influx of England fans is expected to descend on Moscow for the World Cup semifinals, but there's not much sign of them yet.

The Nikolskaya street near the Kremlin, elaborately decorated with hanging lights, has been the main gathering point for fans in the Russian capital.

A few dozen England fans were there on Tuesday afternoon, with those singing team songs heavily outnumbered by passers-by filming them on phones.

Kevin Miles of the Football Supporters Federation expects between 5,000 and 7,000 fans for Wednesday's semifinal between England and Croatia, but admits "a lot of people are doing it last minute, so it's very difficult to put numbers on it."

Airlines have offered extra places on flights to Moscow and some Russians have sold their tickets to the match after the host nation lost to Croatia in the quarterfinals. Still, Miles says high prices for flights and tickets — whether bought through FIFA or from touts — means fans can't be as spontaneous as they'd like.

"The prices have put a lot of people off," Miles told The Associated Press. "There's a lot of people having that idea at home and getting online and seeing the costs and practicalities."

England's influx comes amid political turmoil at home over Britain's exit from the European Union, and as British police linked the death of a British woman to the poisonings of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in March. The British government has blamed Russia for the earlier poisonings.

Some fans are expected to travel without tickets, partly because the FSF identified a loophole in Russia's visa-free system for the World Cup for ticketholders. Russian authorities are issuing "Fan IDs," which mean fans with tickets don't need visas, but the application system allows them to use numbers from other people's tickets and even tickets from old games.

"The experience so far of the first five games has been that the place has been very hospitable and very friendly," Miles said. "There's plenty of opportunities to watch the match without a ticket if you want to come, so people shouldn't feel put off at all. No doubt it'll be a great atmosphere on final day in particular."

England fans congregated at some bars on Nikolskaya on Tuesday, but there were far fewer fans than from the big crowds of South Americans who turned the street into Moscow's party central in previous weeks. The few Croats there were outnumbered by sombrero-wearing stragglers from Mexico's thousands-strong fan army, even though Mexico was eliminated eight days before.

Giant England flags were tied to fences, bearing the names of lower-league clubs such as Blackpool, Bristol City and Tamworth.

England fan Barry Walker said he'd been at England's two knockout games and expected fan numbers to double for the semifinals.

"I've loved it," Walker said. "Russians just want to buy us drinks."