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Bill Conlin: Moscow welcomes football fans

SO, WHAT DO you get when the biggest army since Napoleon showed up in 1812 - 55,000 Brits this time - has pitched camp in Moscow for today's UEFA Champions League final?

SO, WHAT DO you get when the biggest army since Napoleon showed up in 1812 - 55,000 Brits this time - has pitched camp in Moscow for today's UEFA Champions League final?

What you get is a potential perfect storm of soccer violence with Europe's equivalent of the NFL's Super Bowl as the eye of the hurricane.

You get действительно большая неприятность. Really big trouble.

It could have been a champion side from the Italian league vs. a German titleholder. It could have been any conceivable Euro combination from the "football"-playing powers of the continent and the United Kingdom. And maybe there would have been a semblance of a peaceful event in 70,000-seat Luzhniki Stadium - 15,000 seats were unsold to serve as a Brit buffer.

But, no ... The last teams standing in the Champions eliminations are 2008 Premier League champion Manchester United and second-place Chelsea.

Ironically, Man U's manic, red-clad fans call themselves "The Red Army."

Now that Major League Soccer soon will be played next to a Delaware River bridge near you, it's my duty to pass this information along.

Fresh in the minds of jittery UEFA officials and Moscow's city government is the bloody riot that swept through Manchester last Wednesday after Russia's Zenit St. Petersburg defeated Glasgow Rangers, 2-0, in the UEFA Cup championship game. Thousands of Rangers fans swept through the streets, assaulting every Russian in sight, leaving one stabbed, scores injured and 14 overmatched police officers on the casualty list.

A menacing deterrent will be prominent before, during and after an event that will be carried live beginning at 2 p.m. on ESPN2. Moscow's notorious "drink police" will be buttressed by the Omon, a national paramilitary force. These guys - many veterans of the brutal fighting in breakaway Chechnya - make the French Foreign Legion and Israeli special forces look like Boy Scouts.

All you need to know about their MO is in the Omon slogan: "We know no mercy and never ask for it." They give occasional public demonstrations of skills that include exercising on a surface littered with nails and broken glass. They typically do their close-in fighting with truncheons and attack dogs. The Omon selection process includes surviving five no holds-barred fights.

Meanwhile, relations between Moscow and London have been the worst since the Cold War in the aftermath of the 2006 radiation poisoning of exiled secret-service operative Alexander Litvinenko by suspected Russian agents. It wouldn't take much to send the Omon flying into "Omygod!" mode.

"Russia Today," a live 24/7 English language TV channel available on the Internet, has been running frequent public-service announcements for UK visitors all week. Charters carrying Manchester fans have been landing at Domodedovo International Airport. Chelsea supporters have been ferried into Sheremetyevo International. Hotels are similarly segregated to keep the Brit rivals at arms length.

Similar to the Super Bowl's NFL Experience, Red Square has been converted into a vast football pitch. One assumes that any fan who relieves himself in or on Lenin's Tomb will wind up doing Gulag Archipelago time. Communism may be dormant, but the penal system is basically the same.

"Russia Today" advises Brits to "have your passport and immigration card on your person at all times. And you are reminded that the drinking of alcohol in Red Square is against a law that is strictly enforced."

And they are not kidding about that. Moscow's "drink police" have a minimalist way of dealing with inebriates. They patrol the action areas - many Moscow bars serve 24/7 - in mobile jail cells. When the van is full, the lushed-out inmates are taken to "sobering houses," stripped naked and chained to beds. When they are sober, they pay a fine and are sent on their way. Clothed, of course.

The UK's Telegraph has this grim warning for fans who are actually arrested and charged with a crime:

"If English fans are arrested, they run the risk of being thrown into rat-infested Russian cells. Cells in Moscow's two prisons, Butyrka and Matrosskaya Tishina, are barely ventilated, and inmates risk contracting tuberculosis."

Good ... Jolly good.

I'm watching "Russia Today" as I write this. It is running a security drill in Luzhniki Stadium. Two full sections are filled with volunteers who are staging a mock riot, pretending to beat on each other, throwing debris toward the pitch, etc. Riot police in full SWAT regalia are racing up the aisles and are soon handcuffing the mock brawlers, then leading them to waiting mobile holding cells outside the stadium.

It is doubtful any hooliganism records will fall in Moscow today, however. But that's only because the Brits have raised the violence bar so high. On May 29, 1985, an intense riot between fans of Liverpool and Juventus of Torino erupted in Heysel Stadium in Brussels at the European Cup final. Thirty-nine fans were killed. During the 1990 World Cup in Italy, England's side and its fans were exiled to the islands of Sardinia and Sicily for the first three games. Even then, a bloody riot erupted when Dutch fans came over from the Italian mainland by boat to cheer for their booters.

British national police keep a "Banned" file of 3,100 fans who have been involved in overseas incidents. Yesterday, 83 Manchester and 69 Chelsea fans on the list had their passports temporarily revoked.

Sounds like it will be as long a night for the pub keepers in Manchester and Chelsea as it will be for the drink police in Moscow.

Oh, yes, a few words about the ownerships: Man U is owned by the Glazer family, which also owns the NFL Tampa Bay Bucs, and Chelsea is owned by Russian oil billionaire Roman Abramovich.

By the way, when Napoleon and the Grand Armée crossed the Niemen River into Russia, there were 800,000 troops. When they recrossed after leaving a 900-mile trail of frozen human and equine corpses, there were fewer than 10,000 survivors.

The only thing tougher than the Omon is the Russian Winter. *

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