Torpedo Moscow 1 Rotor Volgograd 0 (23/05/2004)
With the problems I’d experienced at the previous two games I decided to make my way to Torpedo Moscow’s home ground a day early to buy a ticket in advance. With Russian football politics just as messy as its normal kind, Torpedo’s own stadium is now home to the little-supported FC Moskva, while they have decamped to the national stadium, the 85,000 seat Luzhniky.
On arrival I found the grounds leading to the stadium filled with a large market crammed with stalls selling all manner of goods that I didn’t really want. It was real “Russia according to the school textbooks” stuff, even if seeing grandmothers having their shopping bags searched with a metal detector was a product of more modern times, and all so very different to what I’d found back in the centre of Moscow. Perhaps 15 years ago, GUM, the state shopping mall that lines one side of Red Square, sold goods like this. Now it was like any other high-class shopping mall, with the usual brands on display, and a few more exclusive ones too. And all in a three lane Victorian-era galleria setting, just like so many modern shopping malls try to copy, and full of people looking to spend their money, and show off just how much they’ve spent too. If that wasn’t enough to send Lenin, deeply embalmed 100 yards away across Red Square, spinning in his grave (or presentation casket, as it turns out) then the addition of a second shopping mall, just out the back of Red Square might. Four floors of illicit western decadence right up against the wall of the Kremlin, where the pretty young things hang out and flaunt their new wealth and frequent the bars which line the malls edge. Just yards away is Kilometre Zero, where all distances in Russia are measured from, and where tourists (mainly Russian) stand and throw a coin over their shoulder for good luck. A small collection of Babushka’s, who’ve clearly seen none of the new money on show just 50 yards away, wait on the edge and rush in to scrabble for each coin. Just a few yards south, the metro tunnels fill with unofficial street markets, where sights such as an old woman trying to sell one small child’s T-shirt hammers home that the free market hasn’t helped everyone.
At least if Lenin were to look the other way he’d see his view improved. St Basil’s has received a very colourful new paintjob (although the inside is still gloomier than a wet Sunday evening in Grimsby), but better still, the Rossiya Hotel, once just past Red Square’s southern end, has gone. It was as if when Russia decided to build the biggest hotel in Europe they’d scoured the earth for the very worst architects the planet could offer, got them drunk, then gave them ten minutes to come up with a design that would fit in three thousand rooms. It was huge. Had it been made any bigger then parts of it would probably have ended up in Belarus, and you’d have had to set your watch to a different time zone to reach the higher numbered rooms. As it was they saved that by making it as a twelve storey high oblong, a quarter of a mile long and two hundred yards wide. As you looked towards the beautifully crafted domes of St Basil’s, The Rossiya all but blotted out the sun, ruining the backdrop with the subtlety of a rugby team mooning in somebody’s wedding photographs. It was my hotel. In truth many of the horror stories were exaggerated. The female receptionists were the only women in the lobby in a professional capacity as far as I could tell, and regardless of legend, the shower in my room didn’t offer the opportunity to observe small examples of Russian flora & fauna at close quarters. In fact other than an incredibly painful checking in process – caused by them first allocating me a room in a section closed for renovation, which alarmed one receptionist so much that she lost the ability to speak English as I complained, insisting “Niet Anglisky, niet Anglisky” despite her reasonable fluency not half an hour earlier – I thought it, from the inside at least, a pretty decent hotel. Mind you, I’m not the sort of traveller who has a loyalty card for the Sheraton. But now it’s gone, to be replaced by a Sir Normal Foster designed entertainment complex. Here’s hoping old Vladimir Ilyich likes his steel & glass.
Poor Lenin, despite the long queues to shuffle past his suspiciously waxworkish looking body in his mausoleum, he seems to have suffered a rather large downturn in popularity. Among the multitude of places to have lost his name is the Luzhniky Stadium, once the Lenin Stadium, although they have kept his statue outside. The stadium has also been redesigned, albeit not by Sir Norman Foster, and the once uncovered bowl is now fully covered and upgraded to UEFA’s top five star status for stadiums. And if there’s one stadium anywhere that needs to be remodeled with some aesthetic appeal, it’s the Luzhniky, for it is smack right in the middle of the foreground of the most popular vantage point in the whole of Moscow. The Sparrow Hills, on the other side of the bend of the Moskva River that snakes around the stadium, is part of the grounds of Moscow State University. Home to easily the most impressive of Stalin’s seven “wedding cake” skyscrapers, and also a lookout point, where newly-wed couple go to have their picture taken against the Moscow skyline. There also the start of a ski-jump, presumably for any new couples pondering an alternative way of working off the calories from the wedding cake and reception.
For once the idyllic setting wasn’t ruined by an excessive military presence (that was left to a severely neglected Olympic swimming stadium and a truly frightening toilet block) and unlike the previous two games I could have easily bought a ticket on the day. Very easily in fact. The problem is that while the Torpedo Stadium wasn’t a thing of beauty, and won’t, unlike the Luzhniky, be hosting a major European final any day soon, it was, unlike the Luzhniky, of a size befitting Torpedo’s support. This meant as kick off approached, it was clear that of the 85,000 tickets available, perhaps 80,000 wouldn’t be taken up, barring an incredibly late rush.
In truth less were available as the stadium organisers took the wise step of only opening one stand. This may have, potentially at least, helped the atmosphere, but it also mean that from my vantage point, if I looked forwards I couldn’t see a single other spectator. In that respect it was the strangest, and loneliest match I’ve ever been to. Not that there was no atmosphere at all. A group of Torpedo fans did their best, but they were outsung by a tiny knot of perhaps 30 fans of Rotor Volgograd. From Volgograd, way down by the Kazakhstan border, it’s over 20 hours on the train to Moscow. Their team were bottom of the league and weren’t going to get any joy this afternoon either, going down 1-0 to the surprising league leaders.
It was easy to believe Rotor were bottom, but very hard to believe Torpedo were top as they played as if they had no interest in life itself, let alone the match. It must be hard to get motivated in a stadium that has the atmosphere of a nightclub at 9pm, but at times you got the feeling both teams had been bribed to lose. Maybe I caught them on a bad day. They must have appeal to some people, claustrophobics perhaps, as the move to the less than suitable surroundings doesn’t seem to have cost them any support. It was just a shame that the last of my three games was something of a let down. I didn’t even get to buy a nice scarf. It was my last night in Russia. My trip was almost over, and even if today’s game wasn’t the highlight of the day it was supposed to be, I at least felt compensated by my highlight being having seen the truly stupendous kitsch fountain hailing the female farm collective labourer at the All-Russian Exhibition Grounds earlier on that day. They just don’t make ‘em like that any more, more’s the pity. For Torpedo fans, I guess they just wish someone would make them a new ground, or at least let them play at their old one. It did seem a ridiculous state of affairs. On my first night in Moscow I got chatting to a guy from Vladivostock in one of the many bars in the Rossiya, and his stock answer to why anything in Russia seemed complicated was to reply “Reechard, eet ees Russia!” as if that would explain all. Any you know what? I think it did.