Lokomotiv 0 Zenit St Petersburg 1 (19/05/2004)
By the time I came to leave St Petersburg, the rain had actually stopped and it even threatened to pretend to be spring on occasions. I was booked on the 4pm Aurora Express to Moscow, but arrived with well over half and hour to kill. After staring in awe at the huge (and I mean huge) map of the Soviet era rail network that adorned about 30 metres of wall at the station (still including a branch to Chernobyl, I noted – the end of the line in every sense), having a quick snack in a plasma-screened snack bar, I decided it would be worthwhile to make use of the facilities to “freshen up”, assumingly they’d be of the same standard.
I was fast learning that there are two kinds of WC in Russia. There are unmanned ones, which tend to be spotless and fine, and there are the manned kind, with a permanent attendant or two, which are the stuff nightmares are made of. The WC at St Petersburg was the latter type. Alarm bells should have rung even before I pulled open that cubicle door. Sure enough it was a hole in the ground type, which I’ve never used anyway on account that I’ve never worked what one’s stance should be in such places, but this one looked like some political prisoners had been incarcerated in there and had staged a dirty protest. Even if I had been desperate to go, with thankfully I wasn’t, I still think taking a dump in my trousers would have been more hygienic.
Luckily the Aurora Express was much more civilised, being a high speed link pretty much laid on for businessmen and tourists who don’t wish to squeeze aboard the 8 hour+ cattle truck trains which most Russians who make the journey make do with. Unless evergreen trees are particularly your thing, it’s not a very scenic route. The only real excitement was passing through the town of Tver. A town which, from the view of it from the train, could win awards for its outstanding unnatural ugliness. Pulling out of the station, two boys waited at the top of an embankment. As one, they drew their arms back and watched in fascination as two lumps of concrete arced beautifully until they hit the train with a crack. I couldn’t condemn them too much. After all, that was probably the only excitement those boys would have that evening, as it was for me until an endless stretch of tower blocks came towards me like tidal wave as the train entered Moscow.
Lokomotiv v Zenit was the very next day, which didn’t give me much of a chance to purchase a ticket in advance. With the very modern Lokomotiv Stadium holding 30,000 people, I didn’t see it being much of a problem and went about introducing myself to Moscow without due cause for concern. It was nearly a fatal mistake in terms of getting in. I can only presume the presence of several thousand Zenit fans at the match had made it a high risk game, and this one was policed by a number of police and/or army personnel that made the match in St Petersburg look understaffed. Again, the entrance to the stadium was barricaded by a line of armed guards, looking just as cheerful and cooperative as the ones I’d seen in St Petersburg. This time though, I saw no touts. Tricky. I adopted the time-honoured approach of holding some roubles in my hand down by my side, just subtle enough to not scare touts off (or to let some little scrote dive in and snatch them), but just showing enough to be obvious. The fact was though that there were dozens of people milling about near the cordon, all obviously trying to do the same thing, all of whom had the considerable advantage of being able to speak the same language as any possible ticket seller.
There were a few touts about, but you had to be damn quick to stop them. All too often you’d see nothing, then there be a flash of tickets and the guy would be swooped on like pigeons going for breadcrumbs. You had to be really lucky, and I wasn’t being. The game was kicking off and I’d just been too slow to swoop as one seller sold his small batch. I turned and heard a voice. “Bilyet?” it asked, one of few Russian words I knew, and it meant ticket. I arbitrarily offered 3 (hundred) but he asked 4, sticking up 4 fingers after rightly guessing I wouldn’t understand the Russian for four. I didn’t argue and handed over 400 Rubles and the tout ran off into the crowd. He was about nine. I looked down at my ticket, still folded in half, and realised I didn’t actually know for certain what I’d just paid £8 for. A few others who’d seen this transaction immediately picked up my uncertainty, and I wondered what the Russian for “I am a mug” is, as I suddenly felt it had been tattooed across my forehead. I slowly unfolded the ticket and checked the date – 19.05.2004 – today’s date. I was in!
I dashed to my seat, only slowed by finding somebody was sitting there already, before giving the officially sanctioned hand gesture for “no, don’t worry about it – you stay there and I just sit here” to sort the situation. I had been raining in Moscow too, but the impressive Lokomotiv Stadium is fully covered, and the roof had almost kept my seat dry. The stadium itself was modern, light and airy, and exactly the kind of stadium you don’t expect to find in Eastern Europe. Looking much bigger on the outside than on the inside, but still very decent with two tiers all round, and executive boxes added in the middle, the stadium was apparently financed by investors including the Russian Railways, who naturally have strong links with Lokomotiv. They certainly advertise in abundance in the ground, although you have to ask why? It’s not as if train users exactly have a choice about which train company they are going to use.
One thing very noticeable was the large splash of blue & white away to my right, where 3000 or so Zenit fans who’d no doubt taken the slow train(s) from their home city, were making their presence felt. It certainly added to the atmosphere – much more than the curious Russian horn that many fans have. The horn itself is blown into from the side, and makes a noise like somebody blowing their nose down a drainpipe, but they seemed to be very popular.
Lokomotiv started very impressively and I was very taken with their attacking style. One player who caught my eye was one-time Russian wonderkid Dmitri Sychev, who turned in a display of attacking midfield football that should have been enough to win the game single handed. I immediately pencilled him in as a potential star of Euro 2004, and for a place on my Euro 2004 fantasy league team. Of course history tells us that in Euro 2004, Dmitri sank like a junk-food addict’s bowel movements, and stank the place up just as badly, but even today his good form was enough to earn Lokomotiv a win. Or even a draw for that matter, as just as I was contemplating my first ever overseas 0-0, Zenit broke from character, launched a foray down the right, towards their supporters who were probably forgetting what their players looked like with it being so long since they been close enough to see them clearly, and a 92nd minute cross was powerfully turned in at the near post to gleeful celebration.
Only the perky willingness of a young girl to walk into the foreground of my photo of the stadium’s exterior lifted the gloom of the walk back to the station, although the army’s decision to line the route with several platoons of men stood shoulder to shoulder, like an attempt to break the world record for the world’s widest defensive wall, at least meant I wouldn’t get lost. Over-manning is a common problem here. Moscow is full of traffic cops doing their best to intervene in traffic movements even when completely unnecessary. And when there are no cars to direct, they stand around awkwardly, swinging their batons like paramilitary Charlie Chaplins. And if you dare cross the roads around the Kremlin not exactly on the pedestrian crossing they get very irate, until they find you don’t speak English and realise the impact of their rebuke would diminished if delivered in the form of mime. If only they’d overstaff football ground ticket booths, then things would be a lot easier.