Vexed by visas on long march to Moscow

I’ve spent a lot of time sorting out my trip to Moscow for the European Cup final on May 21.

By booking early, I found £395 direct flights with Aeroflot from Barcelona, leaving two days before the game and returning a day later. I’m told that Aeroflot have improved since I last flew with them to Volgograd in 1995 on what seemed like a giant drainpipe with seats in it. And given that the cost of a day trip from Manchester is around £700, I was happy with the price.

The next problem was a match ticket. As I’ve been fortunate to see every United away game in Europe this season, UEFA issued my accreditation without any problems. I’d rather be in the United end, but not with the video camera and laptop essential for my work.

A giant drainpipe with seats in it... the Aeroflot airbus A310

I had two more problems to fix – hotels and a visa. The cheapest hotel I could find was £273 a night. That was the morning after the United – Barca second leg, so who has booked all 35,000 hotel rooms in Moscow, if they have been booked at all and not held back by greedy hoteliers waiting for a bonanza?

All 38 hostels I looked at had been supposedly snapped up too, yet I know of no more than a handful of United fans who have rooms reserved. A journalist friend kindly said that I can stay in his room, so that was my accommodation sorted and when I heard that the Russian authorities had waived the normal visa requirements for 72 hours around the game I was delighted.

My relief was short-lived. Fans just need to show a match ticket, but as I have accreditation I pick mine up in Moscow – after entering the country.

So I need to get a visa. UEFA and Alla G. Goncharova, Deputy Chief, Foreign Dept in the Russian government have been very efficient, securing me an invitation stating grandly: “The Moscow Department for Physical Education & Sport avails itself of this opportunity to renew you the assurance of its highest consideration and has the honour of extending an invitation to…” one Andrew Mitten, hopefully.

But I still need a visa. Having secured an invite, I’ve had to book an appointment – at a cost of £1.80 made payable to the Russian government – with the Russian consulate in Barcelona at 10.08am tomorrow morning. I have to present my invitation and a filled in form – sample question: “How did your first pet die?” and will then be quizzed about my proposed trip to Moscow and, depending upon the success of the interview, be invited to spend €33 applying for a visa.

If all goes well, I’ll then make a return trip to the consulate to pick up a visa.

'You shall not pass without a valid visa' 

Kevin Miles, all round good egg and the man in charge of the football fans’ embassy in Moscow, called the other day. They are producing a fanzine for travelling fans and he wanted some help with the content. Kevin ran a similar fans’ embassy for England fans in Moscow and what he said unnerved me slightly.

“Be very careful,” he advised. “I’d say one in three England fans that we saw were assaulted or robbed in Moscow. I may sound like a paranoid Geordie but it was the worst place we’ve run an embassy in by far.”

I’m not one for scare stories and always prepare well when travelling. I travelled through Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador last summer around the Copa America without serious problems, despite Venezuela being very dangerous. Granted, I was with two ex-boxers, but what good’s a decent southpaw against a bullet? We did see a gun pulled and pointed outside a nightclub, but thankfully it wasn’t at us.

With mates going on day trips from Manchester and many more home and away United fans not going at all because of the high cost, I was preparing to spend 72 hours in Moscow writing and making my video diary for Channel M. Here’s the last one from Barcelona from episode 37.

I was going to travel around on the splendid metro, speaking to everyone from Russian Reds to tramps and super models to get plenty of colour, but I fear I’ll have to modify my usual approach. Unless the injured John Terry wants to be my bodyguard and miss the game. He was a childhood Manchester United fan after all…

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