Sunday 19 November 2017

Green army's Russia march is a grueller

Taxi scams, bed shortages and lengthy treks facing fans at World Cup in Russia

'Russia has yet to acknowledge and deal with genuine problems of football hooliganism and general racism'
'Russia has yet to acknowledge and deal with genuine problems of football hooliganism and general racism'
Irish fans in Bordeaux for Ireland's clash against Belgium in their second game of the Euro's 2016

The good news for any Ireland supporters who plan to travel to Russia for the World Cup finals in 12 months' time - presuming of course that Martin O'Neill's side have qualified for the finals and those Ireland fans are not just going to Russia for the fun of it - is that train travel between match venues will be free for fans who have match tickets.

The bad news? Well, to paraphrase Fr Dougal Maguire, they're going to need the travel scrabble and the ordinary scrabble.

Because if internal flights in Russia are too scarce, too expensive, or both, that travelling Green Army will spend a lot of time, an awful lot of time, on trains, though at least the restrictive and expensive visa requirement will be lifted for the World Cup.

The Euros will seem like a doddle compared to the logistical, and financial, nightmare of following Ireland in Russia.

The Russian government and football authorities are already working hard to combat the negative publicity attached to the game there, especially since Russian fans caused so much trouble at Euro 2016.

Media outlets, like the state-run Sputnik news agency have been churning out the good-news stories around fans at the Confederations Cup, attacking "all Western attempts to badmouth next year's World Cup in Russia" with particular bile for the BBC after a recent documentary about Russian football hooligans.

Russia has yet to acknowledge and deal with genuine problems of football hooliganism and general racism.

And shocking footage only last week of a violent police response (700 arrests) to peaceful anti-regime protests is chilling: Irish fans should know that Moscow's police will not be as wowed by boozy songs and lullabies as the gendarmes were last summer.

A summer in Russia in 2018 would be a once in a lifetime experience for Irish supporters, and Russia can be genuinely welcoming, but will also be a test.

Ireland have yet to qualify. But, as an example, if this Ireland side happen to be Team 3 in Group C, they will clock up the miles.

To get the train from Saransk (first group match) to Yekaterinburg, for the second game would take 22 hours - not including the 10-hour trip by train from Moscow to Saransk in the first place, if fans are avoiding potentially-expensive flights.

But to get a train from Yekaterinburg to Sochi, for the third and final group game, would take a bum-numbing 60 hours.

A glance at the map of venues in Russia (see panel, right) makes two things clear: (1) Russia's a big country and (2) tournament organisers have given little thought to the travel travails of visiting fans.

Maybe that's because supporters in Russia are used to making long treks so everyone should suffer: SKA Khabarovsk, from the far-east, have just been promoted to the top flight. Fans of Zenit St Petersburg braving a road trip to see their team play away to Khabarovsk would need 112 hours to make the 8,800km one-way trip by car (we guess they'd fly home).

With matches in 11 different cities (two stadia in Moscow), this will be a Discover Russia tour as groups have, astonishingly. not been grouped regionally. Teams in Group B will play in Kaliningrad and Sochi, cities 2,500km apart.

It is possible, of course, to fly internally. If Ireland were Team 4 in Group G, fans could make the 1,000km trip between Volgograd (first game) and Nizhny Novgorod (second group match), with a stop off in Moscow, in five hours for under €100.

Fans could then, for the third group game, make the 1,600km trip to Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave on the Baltic coast, surrounded by Poland and Lithuania, by air in 7-12 hours for around €200. But flights will be hard to come by.

Getting there is one task, finding a bed is another. Hotels in Moscow are expensive and will be even more so in 2018 once the price-gouging starts, though Airbnb could take up the slack there and in St Petersburg.

But Saransk, in a grim part of Russia where political prisoners were sent as recently as the 1980s, hosts four group games but has only four hotels which are three-star or better so fans might need €10-a-night hostels.

And once you get there, there's always the danger of a Rip-Off Republic. Only this week a Chilean sports journalist, sent to cover the Confederations Cup, was hit with a 50,000 rouble fare for the taxi ride into Moscow city centre from the airport. That's €750 (€25 is the norm). Luckily for the hack, the grabby cabbie was caught by police, the money refunded and the taxi man offered to drive the Chilean around for free for the rest of his stay.

Russia 2018 will not be dull.

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