WATCH: Chelsea’s Russian army masses in St. Petersburg
Chelsea’s legion of Russian fans was out in force in St. Petersburg on Wednesday as supporters enjoyed the rare opportunity to watch their team in the flesh as the London club played Zenit in the Champions League.
Fans traveled from cities far and wide across Russia to see the European champions in action, with some arriving from cities such as Vladivostok in the far east – a journey significantly further than the one Chelsea themselves had made from London.
Before the game, the St. Petersburg Blues supporters club organized a special event at a bar in the city center.
A horde of Blues fans massed to sink pints and enjoy entertainment including a special Chelsea-themed quiz, all while belting out chants in honor of their heroes – with just a hint of a Russian accent.
St. Petersburg Blues member Roman Mitkevich told RT Sport that the visit of Chelsea was long awaited.
“A lot of Chelsea fans are flying in for the match from different Russian cities. It’s the most eagerly anticipated game of recent years,” said Roman.
“There are fans coming from all across Russia, as far as Vladivostok and Khabarovsk. Also from other countries: Belarus, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.
“It’s a shame that there’s only a small number of fans flying from England, but Covid and omicron can’t be ignored. Everyone’s health is the most important thing.
“We’ll try to make it so that visually and from the point of view of support, the Chelsea team will feel at home.
“We’ll try to make every Chelsea player hear chants about themselves and the team. Everyone’s welcome in Russia – from Russia with love.”
Among the fans were the Belarus Blues, who were some of the most vocal voices in the bar.
“We’re really excited,” one member said.
“Our support comes from the heart... It’s a fantastic atmosphere, lots of supporters from Kazakhstan, from Belarus, from different parts of Russia are together here. We’ll go to the stadium together.”
Ryan was one of the few Chelsea fans to make the trip from the UK and was joined at a table by a group of fellow Blues from Kazakhstan.
“I had to get an express visa but I’m happy to be here,” said Ryan, from Edinburgh. “I’ve only seen two other Chelsea fans [from the UK] but the support is good everywhere we go from the locals.”
St. Petersburg Blues organizer Roman is adamant that Chelsea are the best-supported foreign team in Russia.
That appeared to be backed up later in the day as several hundred Russians at the Gazprom Arena supported the visitors.
“Chelsea is absolutely the most popular club in Russia (outside of Russian teams),” said Roman.
“There are strong followings for Liverpool, Manchester United – Manchester City is becoming stronger. But Chelsea in Russia and the former Soviet Union is the leader in terms of the fan base, undoubtedly.
“Of course the influence of Roman Abramovich is huge, a large number of fans began to support Chelsea (in Russia) during his era. But I would perhaps put it differently – he brought attention from the Russian audience to the fact that football could be different, very competitive and beautiful.”
Speaking on Chelsea’s billionaire Russian owner, Yaroslav from Kazakhstan added: “I really want Abramovich to be at the match because it’s his team and his country.”
Abramovich was indeed watching on from the stands at the Gazprom Arena as an under-strength Chelsea and Zenit drew 3-3 after Magomed Ozdoev hit a stunning late equalizer for the hosts.
The result meant Chelsea were forced to settle for second spot in Group H behind Juventus, but for the Blues faithful in Russia and neighboring countries, it was a memorable chance to support their team first-hand.