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Paul Oliver Safaris - A Safari to Moscow - Part one of two

A Safari to Moscow - Part one of two

May 2008

I have been a supporter of Manchester United Football Club for as long as I can remember. When I was only two years old (1958) a tragic plane crash in Munich killed much of this team’s young talent and since the early sixties, as the team rebuilt itself, I have tried to keep in touch with their progress. Travelling and living in the African bush can interrupt ones viewing as many of the more remote places on Earth have little or no television. In 1968 they won the European Cup on English soil at the old Wembley Stadium and then again in 1999 they won this competition, which had been renamed The UEFA Champions League. I was in Arusha in 1999 and as television was starting to be widely viewed across Tanzania was able to watch it live- albeit on TV!

Mike Angelides, (we both follow Man United), a Professional Hunter based in Arusha, and I share 3 passions. Our love of wildlife, music and football has made us good friends and we try to watch as many games as we can on TV at the Greek Club Sports Bar here in Arusha. Mike and his wife Helen run this club and during the safari season when Mike and I are out and about in the bush, Helen will send us each SMS messages with a round-up of results!

We had long desired to see such a game live, to be at the stadium on the night, so when our team won the semi final against Barcelona on April 29th I decided to at least make a concerted effort to go to Moscow for the final against another English team, Chelsea from London. Shortly after Manchester United secured the English Premier League on May 11th and Chelsea finished second.

The rivalry is obvious and it was with a great deal of determination that I set out to secure the final day match tickets. WOW, had I been away along time- prices were outrageous, the flights were fine and reasonably priced out of Nairobi to Doha and on to Moscow, but in trying to secure match tickets a whole world of internet fraud hooked me in and I nearly got tricked. Luckily my curious mind was sharp enough to see through one seller’s con but in retaliation this person sent me 11 computer viruses! There was no other way than to spend way more than I have ever spent on a ticket to any event.

Departing Nairobi airportDeparting Nairobi airport

Our hotels’ area was uninspiring Our hotels’ area was uninspiring

A fountain near The KremlinA fountain near The Kremlin

So with tickets, flights and a hotel booking we drove to Nairobi on May 19th and flew out to Doha that afternoon. A long lay over in Doha between flight meant that we arrived in Moscow at 8 am.

What a culture shock! We were tired, so hired a taxi which took an hour or more to locate our ’hotel’. From the outside it really didn’t look like a hotel at all, more a bottom floor of a tenement block of flats/apartments. Empty beer bottles lay around and shifty eyed people stared at the obvious virgins to Moscow! Communication was basic as no one spoke English at all and our Russian- well, is non existent! We collapsed in our quite comfortable twin room and awoke a few hours later determined to explore Moscow. The metro system was impressive and the trains ran every few minutes, in fact over for days we never waited more than 4 minutes for a train even at 3 in the morning! Off to the Kremlin and Red Square we went and using our ‘bush’ common sense skill we managed not to get lost. People drank beer at midday on the trains and the fashions of clothing seemed lacking in colour of any sort except faded blues, grey and blacks. Black stockings seemed popular with the ladies and fur trimmed coats combined to give a somewhat sombre yet playful impression. Each metro station especially close to down-town Moscow had been decorated by an artist of note and it made for a pleasant surprise at each station we stopped at, and that was quite a few!

A fountain inside a mallA fountain inside a mall

The police were everywhereThe police were everywhere

The Champion’s League TrophyThe Champion’s League Trophy

Once out of the subterranean world of escalators and non smiling metro travellers the sun shone for us as we walked towards our goal. Red Square is normally out of bounds I’m told but for this game of games the powers that be had allowed it to become the UEFA Champions Festival Centre and fans were everywhere. Various football celebrities were on hand and official souvenirs were for sale. A long, very long queue of hundreds of people led to a raised glass room which held the actually trophy the game was being fought for. These people were queuing to have their photo taken next to it. With tee shirts, official programmes and two scarves in hand we departed to explore the nearby shopping malls and back streets. Here we encountered the high class brands of Europe and a lot of very expensive cars. The various fountains we saw were a delight and as the weather was warm we enjoyed our afternoon wandering central Moscow. Tiredness set in and we headed back to our hotel area to seek a bar before having an early night. Again we encountered alcohol being sold from street booths rather than the ‘pub’ culture more familiar to Brits and it took an hour to find a bar we liked after walking into a casino and a shopping mall which were both busy and 4 beers later the only thing we could think of was sleep and the excitement of the next day’s game evaporated as we collapsed into bed.

We awoke bolt upright at 9 am and eagerly organized for our big day. And it would be a long one because the match wouldn’t start till 10:45 pm and no doubt go on into the small hours of May 22nd. The many people watching in Europe would see it start at 7:45 pm. It had rained for most of the night and low cloud greeted us as we came out of the metro station closest to the stadium. But where were all the fans? We were ridiculously early and had 10 hours ahead of us to fill. The police/army/special unit personal were out it force and judging by the number of different uniforms on show the authorities were taking no chances with us ‘notorious English football fans’. Initially intimidating these uniformed 1000’s soon let out a smile or two, the average age was around 18 it seemed and their sheer numbers gave them the confidence to relax and enjoy the day. Posing for pictures and joking in sign language these hordes of young uniformed Russians looked culturally diverse. Their faces reflected the sheer genetic diversity and size of the country which stretches eastwards to Alaska from Moscow.

Mike feels protectedMike feels protected

These dancing singers were incredible These dancing singers were incredible

The Tanzanian flag went with us The Tanzanian flag went with us

At 1pm they finally let us enter the inner sanctum of this huge sporting complex and both sets of supporters were permanently separated from each other from now on. Two fan zones had been set up and as we passed the three check points the stadium’s magnificence, (built 1956), came into view and our excitement started to mount. A few hardy souls had braved the rain and were milling around looking for something to do. We chatted with people from Birmingham via Hong Kong and it was apparent that fans had come from all over the globe. We thought we had come far but people had journeyed from New Zealand we heard later. Our relief that our match tickets were genuine lifted our spirits and so we set about enjoying the fan zone where stalls selling, what else but tee shirts and sausages, had been organized. Coffee followed sausage followed coffee followed chunks of roasted pork and why not buy another tee shirt? Excitement grew and the music and dancing entertainment started, fans numbers increased and then the rain pelted down! Dripping wet we had another sausage. A big screen showed arrival times of the planes from Manchester and at a rate of one every 5 minutes since 6 am we wondered where everyone was. Unbeknown to us they were descending on Red Square and would pour into the stadium complex later.

The teams warm upThe teams warm up

The teams at the opening ceremonyThe teams at the opening ceremony

At 7:45 pm we were allowed into the stadium and quickly took to our seats, the teams came out to warm up, fans started to sing and fill the vastness around us, so those 3 hours before the game started, passed in 10 minutes it seemed. This was it, the Champions League Final and we were there! All the way from Tanzania and we were beaming! The opening ceremony was spectacular and it all seemed that our team’s colour which is RED was everywhere we had been. Red Square, red buses, red dress on the 100’s of people involved in the ceremony in front of us. Even 75% of the seats in the stadium were red! How could a team dressed in blue possibly win?

Now, read part two...