London (AFP) – Arsenal host Russian side CSKA Moscow in London Thursday night for a crunch game which comes as relations between the two countries reach historic lows.
Britain’s corridors of power have been dominated by claims of Russian-made nerve agents and diplomatic expulsions since the poisoning last month of an ex-spy on UK soil.
But for Arsenal fans headed to the big game in north London, events on the pitch are firmly at the forefront of their minds.
“Like most football supporters you put blinkers on and just look at the sporting aspect,” said Barry Dixey, of the Arsenal Independent Supporters Association.
“The win is more important I think.”
Sergei Skripal and his daughter were found poisoned on March 4 in the southwestern English city of Salisbury, in an attack that London and its major Western allies blame on Russia.
Moscow has vehemently denied involvement, despite London claiming the Novitchok nerve agent was produced in Russia, and in the ensuing fallout scores of diplomats have been expelled by both sides.
Around 500 fans of the Moscow team are expected at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium for the Europa League quarter-final amid the political sparring, leading to fears of potential incidents or crowd trouble.
Reports in Russian media this week suggested several hundred T-shirts with the slogan “Novitchok tour 2018” were being planned for travelling supporters to wear.
Russia’s embassy in London also warned last week that visiting fans faced a “high probability of anti-Russian attitudes” due to the “increasingly threatening rhetoric of the British side”.
Meanwhile, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko said Thursday that Russian and British security services were “not cooperating” on security issues for the game, or the return leg in Moscow next week, due to the Skripal case.
“Usually, we (jointly) prepare for such matches behind the scenes,” he said.
“But now, of course, this is not happening.
“Our interior ministry has not received any replies to our requests to visit (London).”
A spokesman for London’s Metropolitan Police did not respond to the Russian claims, but told AFP the force had put a “proportionate policing plan in place”.
“As with all high-profile European fixtures, officers will be monitoring any intelligence related to the game and appropriate resources will be allocated to the match based on a comprehensive risk assessment.”
– ‘Politics for policy-makers’ –
Die-hard Arsenal fan John Williamson, 58, has watched the club around the world since 1969.
He said he didn’t think twice about booking a trip to Moscow for the return leg next week as part of a group of 10 supporters — a fourth visit to the Russian capital following his team.
“So I know what to expect there,” he said.
“Obviously there’s a little bit of apprehension because of what’s going on between the two countries,” Williamson conceded.
“Usually there’s no problems so personally I have no doubt that everything will run smoothly,” he added of their planned three-day jaunt.
One impact on Williamson and other Moscow-bound fans from the spat: staff shortages after expulsions at Russia’s London embassy meant to they had to fork out for emergency visas costing £186 ($260, 213 euros), rather than the usual £108.
“That’s nearly twice as much as normal!” he bemoaned.
Ahead of this week’s game, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said he hoped the “complicated” political relations between Britain and Russia would not spill onto the field.
Viktor Goncharenko, his CSKA counterpart, echoed the sentiment.
“Let’s leave politics for policy-makers,” said Goncharenko, speaking through a translator during a pre-match press conference on Wednesday.
Fears have also grown around Russia’s hosting of this summer’s football World Cup and security arrangements.
The British government has said it will not send any officials in protest over the Skripal case.
But Britain’s leading police officer for football, Mark Roberts, told AFP the UK remained “committed to working with Russian police to ensure a safe and trouble free tournament”.
“Travel advice for anyone travelling to Russia remains unchanged.”