Amid growing political tension between the United Kingdom and Russia, the two-leg fixture could provide important lessons for World Cup organizers and authorities in how to deal with potential flashpoints at this summer’s tournament in Russia.
The World Cup has been the focus of much of the mudslinging between Westminster and the Kremlin since the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury on March 5.
Russian and English fans have a history of violence after packs of supporters clashed two years ago at the European Championship in Marseille, France, causing local police to intervene with riot gear and tear gas.
About 500 CSKA fans are expected to attend Thursday’s match, Russian news agency TASS reported.
“The fans should behave decently, avoid looking for trouble and must not be instigating conflicts,” Vladimir Markin, the head of the Russian Football Union’s (RFU) Committee on security and interaction with football fans, told TASS.
“These people are traveling abroad and they must keep in mind that they are representing Russia,” added Mutko.
Ahead of England’s international friendly with Italy at Wembley stadium last month, CNN Sport spoke to fans about how the English visitors will be welcomed at the World Cup.
The fans provided a diverse range of opinions — from those who believe the diplomatic row will have no impact on the tournament, to those expressing serious concern for the safety of the 25,000 to 30,000 England fans set to travel to Russia.
‘Football is for the people, by the people’
A group of elderly fans, all former members of the Women’s Royal Naval Service, told CNN they wouldn’t be following the team in Russia this summer, adding that they feared for the safety of the fans who were traveling to the tournament.
“I would think they probably won’t be welcomed with open arms,” said one of the women. “I wouldn’t want to go.”
Other fans had more optimistic takes on the World Cup and its peacemaking potential.
“The wonderful thing about football is that it brings us all together, and hopefully we’ll bury politics — and Theresa May and Putin can put their differences aside,” said another England fan at Wembley.
In the aftermath of the Salisbury poisoning, UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced that no members of the government would travel to Russia for the tournament.
The Duke of Cambridge also has no plans to attend the World Cup despite being president of the Football Association. It will be the first time in decades that no senior Royal has attended the event.
UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson drew comparisons between the tournament in Russia and Adolf Hitler’s use of the 1936 Berlin Olympics to promote the Nazis’ agenda.
Russia, on the other hand, has maintained that England fans should have no worries about their safety at the tournament, despite the diplomatic tussle.
“All necessary measures are being take,” Russia’s ambassador to Britain Alexander Yakovenko has said.
One England fan still planning to go to Russia for the World Cup said his biggest fear is that the UK government may prevent fans from going.
“I’m not concerned about the Russian people or government,” he explained. “I think we’ll be made more than welcome. I’ve worked four years for this, I’m going, and I think we’ll have a great time — lovely people, lovely country.
“Football is for the people, by the people — why would we do anything else?”
A return to hooliganism?
The pictures of marauding fans in the streets of Marseille in 2016 were, for some, a shock return to the dark days of football hooliganism in the 1980s.
Marseille authorities said packs of hardcore Russian fans appeared “well trained” and targeted English fans with military precision.
There was crowd trouble in CSKA Moscow’s second-leg round-of-16 clash against Lyon in France last month, reportedly leaving five police officers injured, though it was the French team’s fans who have been widely condemned for the violence.
Fans from another of Moscow’s teams, Spartak, were involved in violent clashes with Athletic Bilbao supporters in Spain earlier this season, resulting in the death of one police officer.
And the issue of hooliganism arose again last month as more than 100 England fans were arrested in Amsterdam for public disorder around their friendly game against the Netherlands.
Fans attending the Italy game in London — more of a family affair than the Netherlands clash — were unanimous in condemning the violence in Amsterdam.
One supporter told CNN: “I don’t think those people who were arrested are England fans, I think they’re people who go looking for trouble.
“When you come to Wembley there’s never any trouble, and your average fan of football just wants to come and support the team and have a drink and a good time.”
Another fan, who has been following England for more than 40 years, explained that the violence is restricted to small groups within the fan community.
“You can see trouble when it’s coming and you walk away,” he said. “I was in Marseille [in 2016] and you just walk away from it, it’s fine. I don’t have a problem.
He added: “I might be naive. But I know the boys and girls I’ve been with are going to behave. We just want to go and have a nice time with the Russian people, it’s a nice country — what’s the problem? I genuinely don’t see what the problem is.”
One 83-year-old fan, who has followed England through good and bad periods in the team’s history, and seen the lowest moments for fan hooliganism, said: “It used to be a big problem for us, and I hope it doesn’t get any worse than it has done recently. I hope it doesn’t escalate.”
News credit : Cnn