Zenit St Petersburg 1 Krylia Sovetov 2 (16/05/2004)
It was kind of miserable when I arrived at St Petersburg. The warmth of the weather was reflected by the warmth of the welcome at immigration, were a middle aged woman who looked like she juggled cows in her spare time, disdainfully demanded my immigration forms in a tone which implied she’d had just about enough on doing body cavity searches for one day, and the next one would be done without the lubricant.
The drive in to the city wasn’t much more cheerful. The time difference between London and St Petersburg is +3 hours, but the city appeared to be about 3 months behind in its seasons, looking more like February than pleasant May I’d left behind. Rain lashed the windows of the taxi that I’d hired for a price probably enough to purchase it outright rather than hire it for the 20 minute trip into town. I can’t recall the make, but the interior reminded me of a car that had been abandoned and stripped by thieves, who’d understandably left the drivers’ tape collection. We glided spongily down the main road into St Petersburg with the taxi’s lively suspension giving you a feeling that somewhere in the city, there’s a pram missing its springs. The rain continued to fall, with the movements of the car’s windscreen-wipers being more of gesture, as if seeing clearly ahead would be an unnecessary extravagance, barely worth the effort. Maybe that was right, as the street’s lane markings were little more than a suggestion in the eyes if the city’s drivers, all of who drove cars which looked like they’d been stuck in door-handle high floodwater for the last four weeks. With the streets covered in dirty melting slush for several months on the year, it seems that drivers here don’t bother cleaning their cars until it’s really necessary, such as finding that families of badgers are living in the door sills.
For the size of the city’s population, nearly 5 million, the city’s football team are possibly the least successful team in Europe, with only one championship to their name. They are one of Russia’s better supported teams though, particularly after moving to the central Petrovsky Stadium, after previously playing at the soul-sapping Kirov. Seemingly built on the old soviet principal of creating a design that’s too big, the doubling it in size, then removing everything that adds a modicum of verve, somebody came up with the Kirov stadium – a 75,000 seat exposed monolith with the charm of an insurance salesman, handily placed near the sea to pick up the invigorating breezes, but not really near where anyone lives.
The Petrovsky on the other hand is right in the heart of the city and on a much more human scale, and I was able to walk there after a day of rain-interrupted sightseeing, where I’d come to learn, among other things, that tourists in Russia aren’t really ripped off at all – oh no – it’s just that Russians get a discount. Luckily such pricing policies don’t apply to football souvenirs, where I purchased my first foreign scarf for a price of 200 roubles (£4), although having to buy a ticket from a tout outside probably made up for that, paying 400 roubles for a 150 rouble ticket. A tout who spoke English was a clear help, as there didn’t appear to be anywhere actually selling tickets. There may have been a ticket booth somewhere at the stadium, but the stadium is on a small island, the only bridge to which was guarded by the army. If anyone has ever wondered what the Red Army do now that the cold war is over, the answer is simple – they police football matches. What actual purpose they serve, particularly when there don’t seem to be any away fans about, is less obvious, but troop movements of a number that would cause small neighbouring countries to panic if they detected them massing near the border are clearly arranged for every Russian League match.
Not wishing to risk being picked out by some incredibly bored looking soldiers manning the bridge, I made my way for the only four people who looked cheerful – and attractive female cadet and three soldiers who got to chat to her while checking tickets. They waved me through and upon realising I was English, one wished me good luck. Whether he just thought it was a cheery greeting, or whether he thought I’d need it, was less clear.
If there was one bit of luck I did need it was with the weather. The Petrovsky was also completely uncovered, and the rainfall was stopping and starting like a dodgy Ford Fiesta I owned in my youth. Sheltering under the stands from another shower pre-match, two soldiers had the same idea until their commander saw them and told them quite clearly (even without Speaking Russian, I understood every word) that even though they had nothing to do, they couldn’t actually do nothing, and they had to walk out into the rain and walk around stadium for no apparent reason instead. Every five minutes the same two miserable damp faces would trudge past as they completed another pointless lap.
Eventually the rain did ease and I took my seat, two rows from the back, reached via literally crumbling steps, only to realise why every fan appeared to have a newspaper with them. They weren’t so intent on catching up with the events of the day after all. The stadium was fitted with bolted on bucket seats whose ergonomic design meant a small pool of water would gather in the middle of the seat should something as unlikely as, say, a rain shower happen. These newspapers then got used as blotting pads to dry the seats. Not having taken the precaution of acquiring a copy of Pravda from the shops beforehand, I had to improvise. My habit of stuffing old receipts etc in my coat pockets and forgetting about them, for once in my life, stopped being a bad habit and became a virtue. With pretty much the last receipt I’d got the seat bone dry. True, I’d never be able to read exactly how many litres of unleaded I’d bought on the 3rd of April 2004, or how much they cost, ever again, but I could live with that, I thought, as I sat and admired the dryness of my handiwork. I’d done an exceptional job, perfect in every respect, apart from one. Seat 58, of Row 23 Sector 3 was perfectly dry, no doubt about that, but my seat was seat 57. Luckily further mining of my coat found the rich seam of a multi-page receipt from a Kwik-Fit Tyre and Exhaust Centre, so the day was saved, as were my trousers.
Pre-match entertainment consisted of a troupe of drummer girls. Given that their drumming routine had the complexity of the opening beat of “We Will Rock You”, there is a possibility that they were selected for their looks, rather than their ability to emulate a Keith Moon solo. Leading them was a majorette, the most attractive of the bunch, whose baton remained resolutely untwirled throughout their parade. Instead she held her baton upright in from of her and bounced it up and down a bit to the beat, as if playing a fancy version of one-potato two-potato. As all of them possessed the kind of looks that can melt virtues at 50 paces, I, along with most of the crowd, looked upon them with nothing but admiration.
Eventually the stadium filled, or overfilled as the capacity of the Petrovsky seems to be taken as little more than a suggestion with extra fans lined up standing behind the back row of seats, and a very soggy afternoon’s entertainment got underway. A bright open game with both teams near the top was promising enough, but as great as both teams were on the break, neither seemed to have much idea what to do on the edge of the box. Crosses were overhit to such a degree that they were in more danger of crossing the Neva River than finding a teammate, while passes over the top were being hit at a speed that would have left greyhounds trailing. The talent on display was unquestionable, but sometimes you got the feeling that the players were trying to put together clips for a “best of” video for their agents to tout around Europe, than actually paying any attention to teamwork, such was the over-ambition shown on several moves.
Zenit, backed by vociferous support, started much better and deservedly took the lead. Krylia Sovetov’s equaliser was almost a surprise, as were the small pockets of cheering around the stadium from their fans, who’d kept themselves remarkably well hidden up to that point. Their winner was even more surprising. After being awarded a free kick so distant from goal that the taker practically needed to pay admission to start his run up, everyone waited for the inevitable threat to low-flying planes the kick would produce. Sadly for Zenit, among this number was their goalkeeper, who thought he’d show just how flash he could be by only bothering to go for the ball, hit directly at him, with just one arm. “Oops” probably doesn’t really cover it, and he no doubt spent the next week in training being the one who has to pick up all the cones at the end of the day. The game was up for Zenit in match they probably should have won, but by a quirk of the fixture list, I would be seeing them again just three days later in Moscow.