ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - Many foreign fans are using Euro 2020 matches in St Petersburg as an opportunity to visit Russia while the country's borders remain closed to numerous foreign nationals because of the pandemic.
Russia only allows citizens of countries with which it has resumed international flights to cross its borders, leaving many foreigners unable to enter the country even with a visa.
But for Euro 2020, the authorities are allowing foreign ticket holders to enter the country without a visa to attend, a practice Russia also used as World Cup host in 2018.
Latvian soccer fan Konstantin Silins knows he would not have been able to enter Russia if it weren't for the tournament.
"It's a great opportunity to take a trip," said the 34-year-old, flying from Britain to the St. Petersburg. "There are strict restrictions on entering the country, it's impossible to drive (across the border from Latvia)."
Ahead of Russia's opening match against Belgium on Saturday, dozens of Belgians fans gathered on the terrace of a pub near the stadium, enjoying a rare sunny day in a Russian city known for its temperamental weather.
Belgian fan Alexandre Deckers, who travelled to St Petersburg with two friends, estimated there would be up to 300 of his compatriots in the stands.
"What will be difficult for the Belgian team is playing in Russia," he said. "There we will about 35,000 fans but only 200 to 300 Belgians. There will be uneven cheering."
Deckers said the tournament had also been a chance to explore Russia at a strange time for international travel.
"It was a chance to come to Russia," he said. "There is soccer, but the city as well, which is magnificent. We walked around all day."
St Petersburg, which has confirmed it will fill its stadium to 50% of capacity for the Euro, is set to host seven matches, including a quarter-final.
The local organising committee has said that fans travelling to the country for the tournament will still need to comply with safety regulations and test negative for COVID-19.
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Maria Vasilyeva, Alyona Ostrovskaya and Dmitry Vasilyev; Editing by Hugh Lawson)