sports blog by andy shenk

Saying Goodbye to Luzhniki

In At The Game, Russian Football, Spartak on May 13, 2013 at 2:48 AM

Originally published at Russian Football News, I visit Spartak’s final home match at historic Luzhniki Stadium. Click here or at the end of this excerpt to read the entire article.

Ever since I arrived in Moscow on Tuesday, the weather has been gorgeous. Balmy temperatures, sunshine and a cool breeze for five days now – not the type of good fortune generally associated with the Russian capital. When I left last December after a three-month stay, I think I’d seen a total of five days of sunshine during the fall. Otherwise, rain, sleet, snow, chilling winds and grey skies overhead dragged on and on and on.

It was pretty foolish, then, of me to bring my jacket along to the Spartak – Krylia Sovetov match Friday night at Luzhniki Stadium. The ubiquitous babushkas may still have been bundled up in overcoats, but everyone else was dressed lightly, enjoying the May 9 holiday weekend.

After a 20-minute walk and 30-minute metro ride, I stepped out of the Sportivnaya metro station and into the crowds of Spartak fans that were meandering toward Luzhniki.

It shocks me every time I’m at a Russian football match, especially after I’ve been away for a while. The media whines and complains about the sport’s rotten fans – the constant swearing, alcohol, and violent clashes. And my disinterested Russian friends look shocked when I tell them I prefer to sit in the cheap seats with those horrid fan clubs.

When I walked to Luzhniki last night, the only fear I felt came from the hundreds, possibly thousands of policemen lining the approach to the stadium, laying their hands on me at three separate full body checks (not to mention four more less invasive barriers).

Sure, young men were the most visible demographic, but plenty of young women, middle-aged fans, and children complemented their number, shuffling through the same security checks. I wonder how my perception of sports might be different if every Cincinnati Reds baseball game I went to as a kid was associated with the cavalry, German Shepherds and helmeted policemen at every metro station leading to the stadium.

I made it to my section (350 rubles/$11.50 per ticket) around 7:30, half an hour before kick-off, after stopping by the memorial commemorating the dozens of  lives lost on October 20, 1982, when fans leaving a Spartak match at Luzhniki got caught in a bottleneck and trampled each other underfoot. The incident went unreported in the Soviet press for years, and remains a rallying cry for fan rights and respect throughout the country. Even rival CSKA, Zenit and Anzhi fans honored the victims last fall on the 30-year anniversary with banners.

Inside the stadium, spectators stretched about 2/3 of the way around the massive bowl, filling the arena to perhaps 1/3 capacity (25,000). I sat directly beneath the most active section, Spartak’s united Fratria fan club. Swearing could be heard, as well as a handful of isolated racist gestures directed at Krylia’s black players, but none of it carried over to the distant, more expensive family seating.

This was Spartak’s final home game at Luzhniki. The arena is being closed for the remainder of the season to prepare for the Rugby Sevens and Track & Field World Championships this summer, forcing Spartak to squeeze into Torpedo’s decrepit Eduard Streltsov Stadium for its final home game against Alania on May 26. Next fall, the Red-Whites will play at Lokomotiv Stadium on the northeast side of the city, before moving into Otkritie Arena on in spring 2014, the club’s first stadium of its own.

Russia’s most storied club has played here off and on since 1956, when it opened at 110,000 seating capacity. Roofless and boasting a natural pitch, old Luzhniki witnessed many of the Soviet League’s most memorable clashes, as well as the 1980 Summer Olympics and numerous Soviet national team fixtures. The arena’s exterior is striking – one of the last edifices built in the classic Stalinist style – but the interior hasn’t improved, despite numerous overhauls.

Continue reading at Russian Football News.

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