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English Soccer Fans: Embattled Russia Finds Unlikely Ally

A few English men surveyed the scene in Moscow’s World Cup fan zone, a pedestrian street lined with bars. In the deepening twilight on a recent evening, the streetlights twinkled on. Russian women turned up, wanting to practice English. In the balmy air, small droplets of condensation formed on glasses of chilled beer.

How were they enjoying themselves?

“This has been one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” said Andrew Barnett, an electricity utility employee from Birmingham. “To be fair, it’s been really positive.”

Outside the country, the Russian government has been on the defensive lately. Just on Friday, the special prosecutor in the United States detailed how Russian spies hacked the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign during the 2016 presidential election. In Britain, authorities are blaming Moscow for additional poisonings from the nerve agent that earlier sickened a former Russian spy and his daughter.

But as they mount a public defense, Russian authorities and state media have discovered an unlikely ally: English soccer fans, who watched their team make a surprising run deep into the tournament, falling in the semifinal to Croatia.

Interviews with English soccer fans expressing bewilderment that Russia might be perceived negatively— when its World Cup reception has been so warm — have become a staple on Russian state television and RT, the Kremlin’s outlet for English-language news.

“We thought that Moscow was populated by angry people, but they turned out friendly and welcoming,” RT quoted one English fan saying. “Nobody tried to cheat us. This was really surprising.”

Another English fan, interviewed drinking a beer on a sunny afternoon, told Channel One that friends and relatives feared for his safety in Russia. “Everybody said, ‘Are you crazy?’” he said. “But look at us now.”

As journalistic tasks go, finding euphoric soccer fans at a World Cup — particularly this year’s, which by all accounts has gone swimmingly — ranks among the easiest. Still, the sentiment is genuine. A dozen or so England fans interviewed in Moscow said their experience contrasted sharply with news media coverage at home, which they said cast Russia as a pariah state overrun by soccer hooligans and kept busy abroad by poisoning enemies of the state.

English soccer fans have found themselves at the center of the dissonance.

When British authorities announced, for example, that two additional people had fallen ill from the nerve agent, a deputy speaker of Russia’s Parliament, Sergei Zheleznyak, turned to the contented soccer fans.

“A huge number of British fans, despite the warnings from their government, came to support their team,” Mr. Zheleznyak told Russian television. So, he said, Britain faked another poisoning to divert attention. “Their impressions are just destroying everything British propaganda built over the past few years.”

For Russian officials, the World Cup has enabled the country to project an image of global cheer to millions of soccer fans at a time Western nations have been seeking to isolate it. While the British royal family boycotted the games, the prime minister of Croatia and the president of France are scheduled to attend the final between their teams on Sunday.

Russian television has given copious airtime to a father and son, identified as Steven and Theo Ogden of Britain, who have been posting videosillustrating why their country and Russia should get along. The Russian Foreign Ministry has thanked the pair.

Speaking of Russian taxi drivers, Steven Ogden said, “They all say ‘Guys, why are we not friends?’”

Theo said that, based on his experience at the World Cup, it was something of a mystery. “We both love tea,” he said. “We both love a fresh brew.”

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