Friendly Russian  invasion

Last week, 40 planes filled with Russian football fans landed at Faro Airport to join busloads of fans arrived from Seville in supporting their national team in their opening match against Spain in the Euro 2004 tournament. Reporter Cristina Alcock spoke to Sergio Demian, a journalist for the Algarve based Russian newspaper Maiak Portugalii.

The huge number of Russians leaving their country to attend the football tournament represents a record for the country, and, according to Sergio, has come about mainly because of the fall of the Soviet Union, allowing Russian nationals to travel abroad.

In the last few years, football has become noticeably more popular in Russia, with the number of fans growing rapidly. As soon as Russia qualified for the Euro 2004 tournament, travel companies began selling packages to Russian fans and families, keen to travel to Portugal. Many are staying in five-star hotels in the region, particularly in the Albufeira and Vilamoura area. Although around 14,000 fans arrived from Russia, most with match tickets, many Russian emigrants have travelled from Germany and England to watch their home team play. The fans even have their own chant, written specially for the event – ‘Ruski’. So how are they expecting their team to perform in the championship?

According to Sergio, Russia has many experienced players and he is confident that their game will improve as the tournament progresses. Sergio was hoping for a tie in the upcoming match against Portugal, and considers the match against Spain, “a bit of bad luck”. However, he considers the chances of Russia winning the Euro 2004 minimal. Despite this, Sergio is confident that there will be no trouble from Russian fans. “The Russian fans have behaved very well,” says Sergio, “we are very proud of them”. He adds: “I hope that the idea people have of East Europeans will change – we are trying to promote Russian culture.”

Portugal is quickly becoming a favourite holiday destination for Russian tourists, who have apparently been impressed by both the weather and good prices. It’s predicted that next summer the number of Russian tourists will increase dramatically, adding to the 200,000 Russian-speaking immigrants in Portugal already living in the country. Many of these immigrants have a vested interest in the tournament as they were involved in the building of various stadia around Portugal, in particular the new Algarve Stadium, Sergio believes that if Russia is knocked out of the tournament, many Russians will support their adopted country.

The tournament has even attracted Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea Football Club and reportedly the wealthiest man in Russia, to Portugal. He attended the opening match in Faro, and hosted a lavish banquet on one of his luxury yachts, currently moored off the Algarve coast at Faro.