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article imageBritish and Russian clubs clash amid diplomatic chill

By Joe JACKSON (AFP)     Apr 5, 2018 in Sports

Football fans out in London Thursday night for a crunch meeting between British and Russian teams had little interest in the political tumult overshadowing the tie even as relations between the two countries plumb historic lows.

"We just came to support our team," said Serge Artiomov, 40, a supporter of CSKA Moscow, who played Arsenal in north London.

The reception in the British capital so far had been "brilliant", he told AFP, convinced fans would behave themselves.

"Of course, it will be peaceful," he said outside the Emirates Stadium ahead of the Europa League quarter-final first leg, which ended with a 4-1 win for Arsenal.

Meanwhile, small contingents of boisterous fans of the Moscow side arrived at the stadium chanting noisily.

The match comes around a month since former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found poisoned in the southwestern English city of Salisbury.

London and its major Western allies blame the attack on Russia, which has vehemently denied involvement, and in the ensuing fallout scores of diplomats have been expelled by both sides.

Russian football fan Evgeny Meshchnanov, 49, described the political crisis as "a dirty game from our side".

"It seems to me it's bad times for Russian people -- and for relations," he told AFP outside the Emirates Stadium, with a CSKA scarf wrapped around his neck.

Barry Dixey, of the Arsenal Independent Supporters Association, said fans were focused solely on the game.

"Like most football supporters you put blinkers on and just look at the sporting aspect," he said.

Russia's embassy in London warned last week that visiting fans faced a "high probability of anti-Russian attitudes" due to the "increasingly threatening rhetoric of the British side".

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.

"Our interior ministry has not received any replies to our requests to visit (London)," he said.

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".

London's Metropolitan Police say they have 'appropriate' security measures in place f...
London's Metropolitan Police say they have 'appropriate' security measures in place for Arsenal's Europa League clash with CSKA Moscow on Thursday

The game appeared to pass off peacefully, with Arsenal fans streaming out of the exits afterwards buzzing from their team's win and few CSKA supporters to be seen.

- '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.

"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 they had to fork out for emergency visas costing £186 ($260, 213 euros), rather than the usual £108.

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."

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