Saying Goodbye to Luzhniki

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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 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.

Ugly red, orange and yellow seating, and an isolated pitch (I sat just 28 rows behind the goal and could barely make anything out on the opposite end of the field) mean that the attention often drifts from the play on the field, either to the waving flags and tireless singing from up above or to the docile police dogs waiting across the shallow moat just beneath the first row of bleachers. Occasionally, a ball would bounce past the goal across the track and through the line of policemen down into the moat. The nearest pup strain at his leash each time, while his owner tried to pull him back.

Out on the plastic field, Spartak struggled to find a rhythm Friday night. Still in the mix for a 4th-place finish, the Red-White’s bronze medal hopes went out the window the week before when Aiden McGeady was sent off in the first half and 15th-placed Mordovia came back for a 2-1 victory. Hosting 14th-placed Krylia Sovetov, and celebrating 57 years in Luzhniki, Spartak needed a win.

In the 9th minute, away on the far end of the field, Krylia’s Petr Nemov got loose and popped the ball up over an out-of-position Andrei Dikan. No one in the stands stirred, but watched mystified, straining to judge the ball’s trajectory. Then it slipped beneath the crossbar and Nemov went off trotting down the sideline, his teammates joining him a bit later, too shocked to even celebrate much.

From there, it was just a waiting game. Would 81 minutes suffice for Spartak to bag a couple goals and redeem its lousy start? Paging through my match program, I read that Spartak’s former coach Oleg Romantsev once chewed his team out for securing the league title with a home draw to Okean Nakhodka. He even kept them from going on the traditional victory lap around the stadium. I could almost see Romantsev over on his bench, chewing cigarettes, ready to lash his team to shreds at halftime. In reality, I kept glancing at the row of boxes perched at the very top of the stadium where current manager Valery Karpin was spotted using a radio device at the last home match. Now three games into a four-match suspension, Karpin claimed then that he was using it to talk to his family and not to the bench.

In any case, without the normally agitated Karpin pacing the touchline, the excitement came from Krylia’s Gadzhi Gadzhiev. He’s been a mainstay in the Russian league, managing Anzhi twice, Saturn, and now in his second stint in Samara. Best known for helping mediocre teams overachieve, he needed points for Krylia to avoid the relegation playoffs. When defender Benoit Angbwa went down before a Spartak corner, Gadzhiev screamed at him to get up and defend. Even when the ref signaled for medical attention, Gadzhiev held his staff off at the line for a few moments, before finally relenting. Angbwa shuffled to the sideline and Krylia cleared the corner, but Gadzhiev continued to hover at the edge of his box, drawing a warning later in the half.

One swell of whistles and jeers crested in the stadium midway through the half, but improved attacking from Spartak brought the noise and excitement back near the 30th minute. When the goal came, any fan directly behind the net would have been blind to miss it. Jurado’s corner sailed through the box to an unmarked Marek Suchy, who coolly headed in the equalizer, and sent the crowd wild.

At halftime, the score still knotted at 1-1, veterans of the first Spartak team to play at Luzhniki drew huge cheers during a ceremony on the field. But once the second half started, the attention turned from the field to the pyro show above us. Smoke and flares turned the already boisterous fans into a swirling sea of orange, red and grey, flags streaming above the fray.

Spartak fans light up in 2nd half

Spartak fans light up in 2nd half

Down below, play continued, but without much bite or sense of urgency. Krylia defended well against Spartak’s possession. Yakovlev and Ari did each have a chance, but Spartak lacked either the luck or the determination necessary for a breakthrough.

Dikan, untroubled in his goal for long stretches, hopped up and down to stay loose. He, along with the suspended Aiden McGeady, had his name sung several times by the fans. Artem Dzyuba, meanwhile, Spartak’s big, home-grown forward, found no sympathy. Replaced in the 78th minute by Vyacheslav Krotov, he was merely the focal point of a toothless offense, but that didn’t keep the fans near me from  cursing him and his play.

Still all even at 1-1, Spartak couldn’t find a spark even in the final ten minutes. Dikan became more and more animated at his end, screaming at teammates to get downfield when he got the ball. But the winner wouldn’t come. Thousands of fans had already left the stadium, rushing to beat the crowds in the metro, apathetic to the team’s result, when Krylia turned the tables in extra time and nearly stole victory. Two dangerous attacks ate up the remaining time, with Reginal Goreux’s final shot glancing just wide of the post.

Spartak fans had seen enough. The organized fans, united in support all match, joined in the with the jeers. When the players approached the stands to show their appreciation, chants of “We’re Spartak, but you’re s***” rang down. Only Dikan, everyone’s favorite, earned one final round of applause.

The Krylia players, many of whom collapsed on the pitch at the final whistle, basked in their supporters’ love at the other end of the stadium, not so much villains for the bitter home crowd as accomplices in Spartak’s passivity.

It felt strange to walk out – in maybe a dozen games at Luzhniki since my first in 2007 – I can’t remember Spartak or Russia not winning. Surely it happened, but I just remember the victories. I saw Spartak, led by Roman Pavlyuchenko, scorch Kuban 4-0 in August 2007. Guus Hiddink and Fabio Capello coaxed Russia to victory over Azerbaijan here, 1-0 both times, in 2009 and 2012. Terek, Khimki, and CSKA went down to Spartak in 2009, too. And last fall I witnessed Unai Emery’s first and only Champions League win in Moscow, 2-1 against Benfica.

Outside the stadium, the night not quite here at 10 o’clock, a hundred or so fans gathered by the player exit. Everyone wanted to see Dzyuba, who got in an argument with a belligerent fan here a month ago, though many assumed he had slipped out before the crowds arrived. When Dikan exited, the cheers went up, but he jumped into a car, not waiting to sign any autographs. Most Spartak players took off like him, though a few lingered for pictures and autographs with grateful fans. No one seemed terribly angry, just bemused by Spartak’s struggles and all too happy to grumble that the players were cowards for not coming out to mingle.

Most of the players and a lot of the fans had already left when I finally got what I wanted. Gadzhi Gadzhiev, the Krylia Sovetov manager, came out with a friend, passing through the crowd on the way to his parked car. At first, the fans let him go, but then someone stopped him and asked for a picture. He obliged and soon everyone had come round. Most congratulated him on the result, pushing forward programs and whatever else to be signed.

Krylia Sovetov coach Gadzhi Gadzhiev signing autographs for Spartak fans

Krylia Sovetov coach Gadzhi Gadzhiev signing autographs for Spartak fans

If I have an icon in Russian football, it’s Gadzhiev. He took Anzhi, a raggedy bunch of Dagestanis and anonymous foreigners in those days, to fourth in the league in 2000 and the Russian Cup final in 2001. A few years later, Krylia Sovetov earned its only bronze in the Russian league under his management.

More importantly, he’s from Dagestan, where I lived in those years. Ever since he was fired by Anzhi in 2011, I’ve rooted for him elsewhere, first at Volga, then at Krylia when he moved back to Samara this winter. Now I stood a few feet away. Once the fans subsided and he started walking again to his car, I walked up and garbled his name. He turned, shook my hand warmly, then looked on blankly as I said I was an American Anzhi fan and that I was embarrassed by how the club had fired him. Gadzhiev just answered, “It’s fine…” and kept going.

With that, I wandered off into the gloom, past division after division of soldiers and policemen, gathering for a bus ride home. So long, Luzhniki.

Andy Shenk

Author: Andy Shenk

I discovered football when my family moved to Russia in the early 2000′s. I’ll never forget sprinting around my house after Russia qualified for Euro 2008, belting out the Russian national anthem. Since 2011, I’ve supported Anzhi in all its inspiring glory and heartbreaking dysfunction. Also Andrei Eschenko’s #1 American fan.

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