sports blog by andy shenk

A Red-White Return to Luzhniki

In At The Game, Russian Football, Spartak on October 24, 2012 at 2:05 PM

Sometime around 5 pm, I miss a call from the website manager of the VTB United League during my English lesson at the Bakuleva Institute. When I return his call an hour later, he excitedly informs me that his bosses have agreed on a salary for my translation work on the website.

I am riding in a bus on Moscow’s outer ring road at the time, on my way to the Molodezhnaya metro station. Suddenly, I remember that Spartak hosts Benfica in a Champions League game at Luzhniki tonight and the idea of going to the game takes hold. I’ll make more money translating than I expected and I want to celebrate.

I shake with anticipation, but first have to call my wife, Nikki, to see if she will agree to go. She’s busy Skyping with a friend…I say I’ll call back in a bit.

A few minutes later, I hop on the metro, heading east to downtown. A Spartak scarf pokes out from under a young man’s jacket. “Оле, ола, вперед Спартак Москва” [Ole, ola, forward Spartak Moskva] stirs from within. “Красно-белый, красно-белый, красно-белый навсегда” [Red-white, red-white, red-white forever]. Finally, I reach Aleksandrovsky Sad. Deep beneath the Kremlin, two choices lay before me – transfer to Biblioteka imeni Lenina and shoot south to Luzhniki; transfer to Borovitskaya and go home. Nikki will decide.

I reach her and nervously ask if she wants to go on a date….immediately. To my delight, she says yes and we agree to meet outside the stadium in an hour. 70 minutes to kick-off. All I need now are the tickets.

I make it to the Sportivnaya metro station in a few minutes and walk briskly to the ticket office. Scalpers block the sales windows and when I see that the cheapest tickets for sale run 700 rubles, I give in to the pushy hawkers angling for my attention. Two guys end up selling me their tickets, 500 rubles apiece. The one fellow who’d first got my attention trades a ticket with another fellow who has two tickets together in the cheap seats. I merrily hand them 500-ruble notes and call Nikki with the good news.

She’s going to be late. She left the house within 30 minutes after my call, but we will still miss the first 10 minutes. I tell her not to worry. I really don’t care. I just can’t wait for the game.

I camp out near the overpass, under which fans must pass on their way from the metro to the stadium and I begin to write.

I’m between Sportivnaya and Luzhniki and the crowds are beginning to thin. Game time in 30 minutes. As the fans pass under the highway behind me, their songs echo through the tunnel.

5 years and 2 months ago I attended my first Spartak game with old high school friend Joe Friesen. Spartak-Kuban, I think it was. Maybe 15-20,000 gathered in Luzhniki to watch the Muscovites roll, 4-0. My boy, Roman Pavlyuchenko, scored. Spartak hadn’t won the league in 6 years and 5 years later they’re still seeking a title.

A bright start in the Champions League this season, up 2-1 at Camp Nou in the 2nd half, has turned to misery. Spartak gave up two more that night, 3-2 the final score in Barcelona. Two weeks later, Celtic came to Russia and the same sad story repeated itself. 2-1 in the second half, only to concede two and drop to 0-2 in group play.

They must beat Benfica tonight. Unai Emery’s seat is heating up and a third loss might see him unemployed. In addition to their struggles in the Champions League, Spartak lost tragically in Makhachkala three days ago, 2-1 to the upstart Dagestanis.

Yes, there will be plenty of anger, should Spartak fail again. Yet, after a time of despair, the joy of victory must be even more intense. Spartak fans crave glory, their club cultivates legends. The players must avert disaster tonight before their home crowd. Barcelona visits in a month and Luzhniki will be feverish for a chance at revenge against the Catalans and a potential trip to the knockout phase.

The crowds are still steady at 7:44. Folks are lined up for hotdogs, sausages, and beer before they must brave security. The Champions League hymn will begin shortly inside the stadium. I’ll miss the goosebumps tonight, as I wait for Nikki to arrive, but there’s Barcelona in a few weeks with a sold-out stadium in which to experience that for the first time.

Ah, strains of Katyusha can now be heard from the lusty throats of Red-White supporters. It’s cold. Everyone’s in hats, scarves and boots. I’ll freeze tonight – I hope the crowds are thick in our sector.

Nikki arrives at 8:05 and we make it in about 8:15. On the approach to the stadium, about 8:08, a roar swells from within the looming stadium, spilling out over the stragglers. “Кариока забил!” [Carioca’s scored!], says the guy next to me with a cellphone in hand. Spartak’s off well once again.

We pass through the fourth and final checkpoint with 10 minutes on the game clock. Our seats are in a corner of the stadium, near the top. Squeezing past security, the black horde enveloping three quarters of the stadium shocks and thrills after our quiet walk to the arena. We force our way up the steps, walking on top of the red plastic seats in our row, behind our standing neighbors.

Spartak has the initiative. A few glancing Benfica attacks, but they don’t seem in earnest. By the 25th minute, Spartak has missed many opportunities to double the advantage.

The tide soon turns, however. Benfica presses, clustered in front of the Spartak goal far from our lofty perch at the other end of the stadium. The Red-White third-string keeper parries a few attempts, but in the 32nd minute he misjudges a cross and Lima equalizes.

Spartak may have blown its chance at 3 points. Their possessions look ever more ragged. Have they squandered victory already?

As if in answer to my doubts, the home side floods back onto our end of the pitch. A bellowing, ceaseless cry hails the athletes from above: “Оле ола, вперед Спартак Москва. Красно-белый, красно-белый, красно-белый навсегда.” The sound is coarse, yet triumphant in its persistence. Spartak’s attacks wash over the Portuguese defense and each new chance drives emotions higher.

The singing and Spartak’s dominance pause in about the 40th minute, but their culmination lies in wait just around the corner. Makeev’s whipping cross 2 minutes from the half-time whistle undoes Benfica defender Jardel, who mistakenly heads the ball past his defenseless keeper, and, in doing so, finally unleashes the built-up tension in Luzhniki.

In the hugging and screaming and high-fiving around me, I hear a clatter at my feet. Someone’s cellphone battery lies on the seat below me, the rest of the phone even further down. I scoop up the battery, someone else the phone, and an anxious young man profusely thanks us for returning it. We keep on celebrating.

Half-time is dull. We’re too cold to sit and the seats too dirty. I don’t want to wait in line for hot chocolate, either, a decision I’ll later regret.

The second half begins, but it lacks the intensity of the first period. Spartak struggles to hold possession and Benfica gradually gains a firm grasp on the game. They can’t score, however. Spartak’s keeper, Artem Rebrov, on the pitch for the first time this season, is rarely troubled thanks to his defenders’ positioning and effort.

The swearing around me increases with each minute. Spartak’s counters are toothless and the interminable wait for full time commences. Spartak escapes again and again and in the final ten minutes of the match our end of the stadium once again serenades the players on the pitch: “Красно-белый, красно-белый, красно-белый навсегда.” A quiet desperation underlies the hymn. Spartak has seen and won more than almost any other Russian club and their fans understand the heritage, which they represent. Spartak must  win, but even should Benfica score, I think the singing would echo valiantly through the night.

There’s the whistle. Spartak have done it. Their win tonight injects new life in their 2012/2013 European campaign, though they’ve a long road ahead.

Another matter, though, soon consumes me and Nikki. I insisted we wait for the final whistle and now the exits are blocked as each sector is dismissed in turn. We know our stand comes last, but we hope to be first in our area freed to seek the warmth of Moscow’s underground. Slowly the minutes tick by. Nikki and I grow colder and colder. I kick myself for skipping the hot chocolate at halftime, and for delaying our journey home. I have a translation to do and it’s already 10 pm.

There’s nothing for it but to wait. Minutes drip in slow-motion. A few near us are let through – one boy who has school the next day and a foreigner, his exit granted after the policeman asks the crowd to make the decision: should he stay or should he go? We magnanimously answer “Yes.”

35 minutes after the game’s end we are let out, the last of the 50-60,000 person crowd. Nikki and I jog half the way to Sportivnaya. Our toes slowly regain feeling, our hands glow from new warmth. Down in the metro we traverse a few minutes more with the Spartak faithful. Crowded together, they sing and jump in the train cars. Spartak is first on this night and pride in the club threatens to fill me, too.

As I lie in bed, sometime after 1 am, I still hear the roaring crowd, the waving scarves, and my legs ache pleasantly from the hours spent in the stands. Spartak won. The date with Barcelona cannot come so enough, I think drowsily, and fall asleep.

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  1. You are such a great writer! And congrats on the increased translation compensation! 🙂

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