Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Russia October 2007
















A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma - how do those long legged girls become babushkas later in life ?

For Steve McClaren the problem was to work out what happened in those four minutes when England succumbed in the Luzhniki.

This writer enjoyed Russia despite the well documented negative aspects.
Perhaps it was the power, the passion, the architecture or the sense of history in this vast country.

It started off cold with sleet & snow in Moscow but got better.

I travelled to a warmer Rostov-on-Don to see a Russian 1st Division game between SKA & Tekstilchchik Ivanovo, returning on the Wednesday afternoon in good time to see Russia play England in the capital.

Certainly the Luzhniki will offer a vast, atmospheric, secure & well organised stadium for the Champions League Final next year.
The locals generated a vibrant noise & colourful display for the International though the flares might well induce a sanction from UEFA.
Similarly the Spartak fans were noisy during their victorious league game over FC Moscow a few days later - albeit in a less than half full ground.

In 'our' game we scored a route-1 goal, missed one or two other chances & looked dodgy in defence when the Russians turned on the pressure.
To this observer the Russians seemed limited & without obvious stars although the goalscorer Pavlyuchenko was superb when he came on (though less so when playing for Spartak at the weekend)
He had apparently been late for a training session but as part of the admonishment Hiddink had clearly found a way to inspire him.

Despite the situation there might be another twist to this qualifying group as Russia will not find it easy in Israel & before a packed Wembley against an already qualified Croatia, England might get there after all.
One Russian I spoke to definitely thought the powers-that-be wanted the England 'brand' to be in Austria/Switzerland rather than themselves.


The 3 stadiums I visited in Moscow were all close to a Metro station (two in the case of the Luzhniki) & the Metro is a work of art - sometimes literally.
The worlds busiest such system, it is fast & efficient but often very crowded.
It has dangers for the unwary - in that xenophobic, possibly drunken, ultras use it as a means of transport. Typically they wear no colours & do more than just roll coins down the long escalators.
So learning to interpret the cyrillic text (after a few days you can pick up the basics) is recommended for finding your way around the system even though at times you end up counting the stations to your stop.

Moscow is a place to take a camera - though not in Lenin's mausoleum.
The Kremlin, St Basil's Cathedral, numerous churches, the statue of Peter the Great, the foreign affairs ministry - awesome buildings & monuments abound reinforcing the sense of history & power.
Power (or is it paranoia ?) is also represented by the ubiquitous security presence.

Even at the lowly SKA Rostov game there were numerous police/military lining the pitch.

On leaving the Lokomotiv stadium after their 1-1 draw with Luch Vladivostok there was a corridor of guards leading to the Metro entrance & many others on the station platform.
Incidentally I was told that around 20 or so fans regularly travel from Vladivostok to their away games - most of which would be near Moscow - over 6000 km away.
For a 'local' derby the nearest team is currently Tom Tomsk a mere 3000 km or so distant.
Based on distance alone Luch would be far better off playing in the South Korean, Japanese or Chinese leagues.

Back to the security (same word in Russian by the way) aspect. This can be taken either positively , my own view, in that it enhances safety in this volatile world or negatively, in that is normally unnecessary & overkill in most situations.
It seems to hardly affect the bustling muscovites as the only people I saw stopped , for a document check, were apparent (possibly bearded) foreigners & drunks.

Of course there are queues & service can be slow & at times surly.
But there is a vibrancy about the place.
The restaurants buzz with friends & family greetings, as flowers are exchanged evoking memories of the famous picture of Chelsea players receiving bouquets from the Dinamo Moscow team back in the 40's.

That practice stopped in the 1960's so it played no part in Dinamo's encounter with Kuban Krasnodar at the aged Dinamo stadium. Some 7000 saw the home team hold on for a 1-0 win.
Dinamo have plans to either move, or renovate, their historic stadium as do Spartak (who hire the Luzhniki) & CSKA.

Moscow is very expensive , usually there is full-on heat inside & maybe too much cold outside.
But there are plenty of jobs for cleaners, flower sellers, alcohol & mirror vendors (the girls wear them out)
Take a trip outside of the centre , say to Domodedovo airport , & you see the landscape change.
Amongst the autumnal trees are the stark, grim tower blocks & the derelict industry.

But even in those places the Russians would have celebrated their first home win over a top ten team (England)

The place & the country will draw this visitor back in the near future.

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