You can’t ask for much more from Russia’s Football National League (FNL), the first tier of competition beneath the Premier League. On Tuesday, two former RPL clubs, Khimki and Spartak Nalchik, clashed on a sunny evening outside of Moscow in a match with both promotion and relegation implications.
Khimki, most recently in the top flight in 2009, welcomed Spartak Nalchik, relegated last spring, to Rodina Stadium in downtown Khimki. This sleepy bedroom community, population 200,000, located on Moscow’s northwest fringe, has a surprising amount of athletic tradition. One of Russia’s top basketball clubs, also named Khimki, play here, while nearby Khimki Arena has served as a temporary home for football clubs Dinamo and CSKA while bigger stadiums are being built in Moscow.
Khimki did play in the 18,000-seat capacity Khimki Arena its final year in the top flight, but have been forced to move to the much cozier Rodina due to financial constraints and lack of interest.
About 800 fans came out to the game against Spartak Nalchik, dropping between 100 and 200 rubles per ticket ($3.50 – $6.50). I, however, wasn’t one of them.
Caught up with work until a little after 5 pm, I needed to take the metro across town, hop on an elektrichka, Moscow’s popular suburban trains, and walk about a mile from the train station to the stadium. With kick-off scheduled for 6 pm, I figured I’d catch the end of the first half at best.
After a solid start to my trip – I bought my train ticket at 5:40 – the journey began to unravel. Ticket in hand, I somehow bungled my way into the wrong train station (three different stations connect to the Komsomoskaya metro), then spent five minutes trying to figure out how to exit.
Moscow’s gotten smart – passengers can only enter and exit the platforms with a valid ticket stub – so I’m still not sure how I entered Yaroslav station when my ticket was marked for Leningrad. A station attendant helped me sort it out and off I went, slipping onto a 5:56 train bound for Khimki just moments before departure.
But, unlike the Spartak match on Friday, where anyone could have just followed the sea of red-white scarves and rows of policemen from Sportivnaya metro to Luzhniki Stadium, I couldn’t find the slightest sign in Khimki that the local club was fighting for FNL survival just a few minutes from the train station. Still only 20 minutes late, I figured I could make it to the stadium on the half-hour, if only I knew the way.
Families with baby strollers packed the park to my right as I headed down what I thought was the right street. Fifteen minutes later, the sidewalk turned to a dusty path and Khimki appeared to be at a dead-end. Mistake #2.
I do speak Russian, but I hate asking for directions if I’m alone. So I retraced my steps, veering this time through the park near the train station. The Intenational Tennis Center gave me brief hope – but the local pitch wasn’t here either. My watch read 7:00 pm by the time I admitted defeat and returned to the train station.
Immediately, I saw what I should have noticed 40 minutes before. An overpass, crossing the train tracks a few hundred yards down from the station, fitted perfectly with the vague map in my head.
The overpass served one of Khimki’s central avenues, clogged by traffic. At the end of the street, Rodina Stadium glistened in the evening light, and I wearily made my approach ten minutes later.
Mumbling to the ticket office guy, “I don’t need a ticket anymore, right?” I headed to the gate. The stadium steward was a bit confused when I told him I didn’t have a ticket, but as I turned away to go back to the ticket box, he relented and waved me through. Nobody even looked at my black backpack or patted me down. Instead, I wandered down several sections to midfield, before a second steward asked for my ticket and told me to just take a seat.
Two hours of travel and 70 rubles on transportation had bought me 30 minutes of Russian second-division football. A fair trade, all in all.
The fans around me were mostly older. Perhaps a hundred younger Khimki fans sat in the 100-ruble seats to my left, while 40 or so Spartak Nalchik supporters were segregated at the other end of the stand. Two VIP boxes, raised about 15 feet above the pitch, faced us from across midfield.
The stadium can seat 5000 and both goal-end bleachers were not surprisingly completely empty today. Barring a return to the RPL, Khimki’s only hope of filling the venue would have to be a Cup match with Spartak or Zenit, Russia’s two most popular clubs.
Spartak Nalchik, unbeaten in nine matches and fighting for a place in the promotion playoffs, trailed 1-0 when I arrived. Despite controlling possession, the visitors were held at bay by Khimki’s brazen nine-man defense. Ivorian forward Serges Deble, who scored the opening goal in the 7th minutes, I later learned, was often the only player in red on Spartak’s end of the pitch.
The Nalchik fans, most of whom had probably moved north in recent years to find work in Moscow, were far more organized in support of their hometown club, banging on a drum and singing in unison every 5-10 minutes.
But the Khimki crowd got its point across, too, yelling at the ref and erupting in laughter in the 74th minute when Spartak wideback Aslan Zaseev crumpled to the ground for a minute, before hopping up to continue the attack when no whistle was given.
But with the home team ahead, shockingly so – Khimki sat 2nd last in the FNL – the atmosphere was more or less relaxed. Just one gentleman in the VIP boxes looked especially worked up, leaning over the ledge at one point to scream something at the officials.
Khimki manager Valery Petrakov shared his energy, desperate to secure three points so close to the end of the season and relegation beckoning. As full-time approached, his language grew increasingly salty and cynical. He counseled midfielder Maxim Pukashenko, “Slowly, Max, slowly,” during a throw-in in the 78th minute, to the amusement of the home fans, and picked up a warning from the ref after spewing a stream of profanity from the sideline.
Serges Deble doubled the lead in the 82nd. Picking up the ball on the right wing, he drove downfield, cutting into the box near the line and blasting a shot over goalie Anton Kochenkov into the back of the net. The Khimki crowd jumped up in appreciation as Deble and Ghanaian teammate Edward Kpodo danced a jig together.
Petrakov and the excitable VIP man settled down for a bit, but the Nalchik players continued to press. The visitors’ breakthrough finally came in the 89th. Zaseev broke into the box on the left wing and crossed to an unmarked Igor Koronov, who headed home – 2-1.
A few minutes later, halfway into four minutes of extra time, Khimki nearly choked its hard-earned points away. A mad scramble in front of the Khimki goal ended with the ball in the net, but Roman Galimov waved the equalizer off. The wannabe goalscorer, Alexey Medvedev, was judged to have handled the ball, and Khimki escaped.
Two matches remain – at Torpedo Moscow and home to Volgar Astrakhan – and the modest Moscow Region club can still avoid relegation. Six points are essential, but a game in hand against 15th-placed Metallurg Kuzbass means a win next Monday against Torpedo would put Khimki level with safety, leaving just a home match against 17th-placed and already-relegated Volgar remaining.
Spartak face Baltika and Ufa, its direct competitors in the hunt for the promotion playoffs. The Nalchik club can guarantee a top-four finish and shot at the RPL with a win at home on Sunday against Baltika, but a second straight loss would send Spartak on the road to Ufa, level with Baltika on 50 points and possibly needing help to secure the final playoff spot.
As for me, I shaved about half an hour off my travel time on the way home. The football was exciting, the price couldn’t be beat, and a few extra miles of walking never hurt anyone.
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.