Zenit St Petersburg 2 v Leningradets, Friday 4th June 2021, 7pm.

June 16, 2021

I’d visited Saint Petersburg during the 2018 World Cup and watched a couple of games at the Gazprom Stadium with Paul. Jen had never been though and so I took a couple of days holiday and we went for a long weekend.

I imagine that you can probably fly to Saint Petersburg from Moscow in around an hour or so. There’s a fast train too that takes you there in under four hours. Instead Jen and I decided to travel more slowly on the overnight train which departed from Leningradskiy station in Moscow at 23.40, getting into Saint Petersburg around nine hours later the following morning.

We had the poshest category of cabin on the train, complete with our own shower and toilet. It wasn’t as luxurious as the Blue Train in South Africa where I’d enjoyed a bath, but it was pretty good. We were served with dinner at midnight in our cabin and then shunted over the table to make space to fold down the bed. There was also a bunk above but we both fitted fine on the pull-down lower option.

We had a decent view of the countryside leading up to Saint Petersburg as we had breakfast the next morning and then a driver met us at the train door to take us to our hotel. It was a pleasant way to travel.

As our hotel room wouldn’t be available until later we dumped our bags and went for a wander around. First stop was the Saviour on the Spilled Blood church. I’d seen the outside of this place on my previous visit, albeit covered in scaffolding. It looked as if the restoration work remained ongoing as the upper section of the building was still hidden by protective wrapping.

The inside of the church was impressive. Maybe the best I’ve been in over here with mosaics on a lot of the walls. The paintings on the underside of the dome were better than I could have done, which is always my starting point in assessing the merits of artwork. In fact, they were much better than I’d have done, maybe because there are fewer things that I dislike more than painting ceilings.

Jen and I also had a look around the State Hermitage Museum in the Winter Palace which is somewhere that Paul and I had queued for back in 2018 but then given up on due to the time taken to get inside. This time nobody was in line and we were able to waltz straight in.

It was ok as museums go. I can usually see what I want in these places without hanging around much and the highlight of this one was a tapestry depicting various jungle animals eating each other.

Or at least I thought the highlight was the tapestry. As we were heading for the exit our route took us through the Egypt department. I like Egyptian stuff anyway but on this occasion they had excelled themselves by having the mummified corpse of what they claimed was a priest. I’ve no idea how they knew and to be honest I didn’t really care what the bloke had done for a living three thousand years ago. It’s just good to have dead people on display.

The trip had originally been built around the third-tier Professional Football League fixture between local rivals Zenit 2 and Leningradets. The new football App that I have threw up a few alternatives but in the end we stuck with the original plan and took a taxi to the Smena Stadium.

A lot of the route looked familiar and I soon realized that it was the route that Paul and I had walked three years ago after confusing the ground used by Zenit’s second team with the World Cup stadium that usually hosts the Zenit first team’s fixtures. Fortunately, on that occasion we realized our mistake in sufficient time to avoid missing out on seeing Brazil play in a World Cup game.

On arrival at the Smena Stadium we joined the queue for free tickets, then the queues to get in and finally the queues for scanning. Jen got turned back in order to deposit her backpack in the left luggage store whilst I got asked to switch on both my phone and camera. It was stricter than an airport and all for a game in the third-tier game with no more than a few hundred attendees.

We had been given tickets for the main stand. There were a few away fans in the stand opposite and some vocal Zenit fans behind the goal to our right. There was a particularly vocal Zenit fan a few rows in front of us too. He seemed to struggle in enunciating his words with each song or chant blurring into nothing more than noise.

After a while he was warned by the stewards not to be an arse and he responded by making a dash for it to a seat around ten yards away. The steward went for another word and he did the same thing again. Eventually he was left to make his noise.

Zenit took the lead just before half-time but it didn’t take long for Leningradets to equalize after the break. It became apparent that there were around equal numbers of fans of each club in the main stand where we were sat. Or people who are happy to cheer a goal no matter who scores it.

Conceding an equalizer seemed to piss off the home bench and after a few minutes of giving lip to the officials one of their coaches was shown a red. He disappeared down the tunnel, perhaps after considering the security measures that he would have had to go through if he had wanted to watch the remainder of the game from the stand.

Jen and I had seen Zenit play in Moscow the previous week and had noticed a fella with an impressively twirly moustache. At the end of that game he went down to the front to chat with one of the players. On seeing the two of them together it appeared highly likely that the player was his brother, different only by being clean shaven.

Moustache fella was sat just behind us for this game and well into the second half his centre-half sibling scored a fantastic goal with an on the angle volley whilst falling backwards. I turned immediately to see the joy on moustache fella’s face.

Sadly, that effort didn’t turn out to be the winning goal with the visitors scrambling an equalizer with just four minutes to go for a two-all draw.

Dinamo Moscow 2 v Zenit St. Petersburg 2, Sunday 30th May 2021, 4pm

June 1, 2021

Jen and I had planned to have a wander around inside the Kremlin a couple of weeks earlier but had been sidetracked by the chance to go into Lenin’s Mausoleum. The Kremlin wasn’t going anywhere though and so at the weekend we went back to try again. It was busy outside, with a crowd of people gathered to watch the changing of the guard at the eternal flame memorial. We looked on from a distance as we walked towards the Kremlin ticket office and were rewarded with a view of the guards goose-stepping towards us.

There were a variety of tickets on sale and without really knowing how it all worked we picked one that appeared to get us into a few cathedrals. We can always go back and do the Armory Museum and the Bell Tower on a different occasion. It was much quieter inside the Kremlin grounds than it had been outside and we had a mooch around a few different buildings. Some housed artifacts, pots and pans or coins, others were more regular churches, but full of fancy stuff and paintings.

I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside the buildings but they were just as fancy churches always are so you can no doubt imagine how it was. Something that did strike me though was how bad some of the paintings were. I know that most artists in the olden days couldn’t accurately depict the likes of horses, but some of these paintings had people without faces. I can only assume that leaving out the face was acceptable in those days.

The other thing that most of the artists struggled with was babies. Everyone knows that babies have proportionately larger heads than adults, or at least they know now. Back then the done thing was to depict babies, usually baby Jesus, with adult proportions. It invariably looked like he had been replaced with an Action Man doll.

After a late lunch just off Red Square we took a taxi to the Rodina Stadium at Khimki. I was a little concerned as we passed by the Khimki Arena and I wondered if we were going to arrive at a wrong location yet again. Fortunately, it was just a quirk of the route and a few minutes later we were dropped outside of what turned out to be the correct ground for the third-tier PFL Group 2 game between the second teams of Dinamo Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg.

We headed for the nearest gate but were turned away on the basis that we didn’t look like we were Zenit fans. Fair enough, and a good job it was too as we would have been confined to a far end of the stand.

Further up the road we were handed free tickets and guided towards a different gate. I’m not really sure what the deal with the tickets is. Maybe it is to limit attendance in that once all of them have been given out then that’s it, no more admittance.

It took a while to get through the gate, mainly because I had my Barbour on and the security guy kept finding things in the various pockets. I explained away various bulges as being an umbrella, a camera, a pen and finally half a packet of old cashew nuts for feeding squirrels. It would have been much simpler if he had adopted the approach taken by the fella at the Kremlin earlier in the day who was content to ask me if I had any knives or dangerous objects.

Once inside we found seats close to the half-way line and in the back row. This was high enough for us to be able to watch the game over the top of the fence that separated us from the pitch. We also had a running track between us and the action. On the far side was the only other stand which looked to be for VIPs and a church that chimed out at irregular intervals.

The away fans were to our far right, with the home supporters at the other extremity. Both sets of fans kept up the singing throughout and whilst I couldn’t see the Zenit fans too well, a lot of the Dinamo supporters finished the game without their shirts on. It was a cold day too.

Dinamo were in white and blue, whereas Zenit were in blue and white. I’m not really sure why they couldn’t have worn different colours or even just their away shorts.

A quarter of an hour in the Dinamo keeper missed a cross and so pretended that he had been clattered. No sooner had he recovered he failed to take a touch on a back pass and it rolled beyond him heading for the far corner of his goal. He frantically chased it down and just managed to clear it off his own line. I suspect if he had let it in he would have gone down clutching his hamstring.

He didn’t do much better on the half-hour when he left an inswinging corner that bounced in off the thigh of a Zenit player for the opening goal.

The second half had barely started when a Zenit player picked up his second yellow. Both challenges had been needless and were clear bookings. The ref was left with no choice but to send him off and there were no complaints from anyone, including the player himself. Maybe he had somewhere else he needed to be.

A man to the good it didn’t take Dinamo long to draw level with a free header in the six-yard box. The old fellas in front of me were ecstatic. Actually, on reflection, they were probably younger than I am. Still old fellas though, I suppose.

Dinamo were on top at this point and soon added a second when a diagonal ball behind the defence was tucked across the keeper into the opposite corner. At this point there only looked to be one winner but Zenit threw a few people forward as we approached full-time.

With what seemed like just about everyone in the Dinamo box a Zenit player was able to convince the ref that it was the defender who had initiated contact with him, rather than as it looked to me, him running into the defender. The Dinamo Keeper very nearly got to it to the resulting penalty despite it being right in the corner.

Zenit might even have nicked it right at the death with a penalty shout for handball. It looked more of a pen than the one that they had just scored from but the ref took the easy option and instantly blew for full time instead. The Dinamo fans in front of me had clearly expected it to be given and were as happy to see the game finish as they had been with their two goals.

Footnote: I’ve just noticed that this is the five hundredth post on the blog. Blimey. That’s a lot of wasted time.

I’ve enjoyed keeping a record though of sporting events that I get along to. When I started eleven years ago it was only Korean games that I posted about but once I left there in 2013 I widened it to cover whatever I got up to. It’s handy for me now to be able to look back and see what we did when living in South Africa, Australia, Malaysia and now Russia, although I can appreciate from the low number of visitors that fairly dull groundhopping blogs have little interest to anyone bar me.

Anyway, here’s to the next five hundred.

Krasnogvardeets Moscow v Sokol Moscow, Tuesday 25th May 2021, 7pm

May 30, 2021

I give my Mam a daily video call and the most convenient time on this day was at half-time in the match we were at. After I’d shown her everything around me on my phone she remarked that we were the only people there. That wasn’t really true, it was more that we were the only ones who hadn’t nipped outside for a smoke before the second half. On learning that it was a fifth-tier game she then told me that I must have ‘football on the brain.’ She may have a point.

We do get up to other stuff but as this is a sporting blog it only tends to get a mention if it happens on the way to the game. A couple of days earlier we had been to the Bolshoi Theatre to watch an opera and that’s something that is probably worth clumsily shoe-horning in to this post to show that my life is not all games of little consequence to anyone other than those on the pitch.

The Bolshoi Theatre is not too far from the Red Square area and is an impressive looking building. So impressive that I forgot to take a photo. Fortunately it appears on the Russian equivalent of a pound note and so I’ve taken a photo of that instead.

I suppose going to the Bolshoi is one of those tick-off activities that anyone spending time in Moscow ends up doing. I’ve never seen ballet or opera before and so it’s reasonable to conclude that it was the occasion and the location that tempted me rather than the performance.

I’d booked thirty-five quid tickets in a balcony along the side a few weeks previously. At not far from the stage and in the third level of five they seemed the best balance of price and view. If we had wanted to sit in the stalls it would have been a hundred and fifty quid which struck me as being only for those with ‘opera on the brain’.

We had a good view of the orchestra which we wouldn’t have had from the floor level and I enjoyed watching them warm up. Some of the more conscientious musicians were already there as we took our seats fifteen minutes before kick-off but others rocked up much nearer the time, one or two of them arriving just before the lights dimmed to exchange fist-bumps and snap open their violin cases as the show began.

The opera was Salome, famous for the dance of the seven veils and considered shocking back in the day. Whilst I’m not easily shockable I was surprised to see one of the children who played Salome wandering around the stage with the severed head of John the Baptist. She didn’t look more than five years old.

Anyway, that’s the culture done. Back to the tier-five game in the Moscow B League.

The match between Krasnogvardeets and Sokol was taking place at the Stadion Borisovskiye Prudy and not the nearby Borisovskiye Prudy Sports Complex. That was a shame as it was the Sports Complex that I’d mistakenly entered into the Yandex taxi app and where were dropped off a couple of minutes after seven.

Thankfully we were able to follow the directions on my phone and find the correct location albeit at the cost of missing much of the first half.

Krasnogvardeets, in maroon, were a goal to the good when we arrived and took seats in the single seated area along one side. The ground has a capacity of just over three hundred but with only around forty people in attendance there was plenty of room.

The general standard of play was decent but, as ever, it was the finishing that let the sides down. Sokol, in white, managed to bring themselves level just before the break though with a close-range header from a corner.

In the second half both sides created good opportunities but some astonishing misses warranting John the Baptist consequences were combined with two keepers at the top of their games. It meant that a fixture that could easily have gone either way finished up at one apiece.

Chertanovo Women v Yenisey Women, Saturday 22nd May 2021, 4pm

May 26, 2021

This game came about through the new ground-hopping app which surprisingly revealed that there was a football ground with a match scheduled no more than four kilometres from our apartment.  I think the reason that I hadn’t twigged before is that it was Chertanovo women. I’ve seen their men’s team play a couple of times at Sportivny Gorodok in Luzhniki park and I suppose I had just assumed that the women would play at the same ground.

With the ground being so close it made sense to walk it, particularly as we could follow a route that took us through Serebryanyye Rodniki. I’m always amazed by how many areas of parkland or forest are within the Moscow area. Although I was the same about London when I lived there thirty-five years ago.

Serebryanyye Rodniki didn’t have much wildlife. I caught a glimpse of a squirrel heading up a tree a fair distance ahead and there were a few interesting looking birds, but the combination of the camera auto-focusing on nearby branches and my shaky hands meant that any photos were invariably too blurry to use.

There were plenty of dogs though, mostly on leads. I understood why when we spotted the ‘lost dog’ posters. Perhaps the lure of the forest was too much for them.

We spent a couple of hours walking through the woods. It was longer than I’d planned as I misread the directions on my phone and at the time when we should have been heading for the ground I was confidently striding out in the opposite direction.

One of the things that are fairly common in Moscow parks are home-made bird feeders. Some of them look like school projects and probably won’t last the week but others are more substantial. The squirrels probably have a circuit established for nipping in and scoffing whatever has been left inside.

We arrived at the Chertanovo Arena bang on time for kick-off but were delayed a few minutes by the temperature check, airline-style scanning, pat down and the insistence that we swig the cans of coke that we had with us before going in. It all seemed well over the top to me. I’m not sure what trouble there has been in the Women’s Supreme Division in the past but I doubt that a middle-aged couple would pose much of a threat.

Once inside we found seats in the only available stand which was opposite the dugouts. A further security measure required that we watch the game through netting and with posts and hoardings further restricting the view.

We sat at the back of the three rows of seats in the stand temporarily managing to keep out of the sun. As the half progressed and the sun got lower we found ourselves squinting and the view deteriorating by the minute.

Home side Chertanovo were taking on Yenisey. We’d seen the visitors get a pasting from CSKA last month and on that occasion they’d played in white. This time they had red kit with Chertanovo playing in white.

There were about sixty spectators including a dozen or so making a racket in support of the home side. The drummer missed a beat on one occasion to whack the bloke next to him. I presume it was to encourage him to sing.

Yenisey took an early lead and played some good, fast-passing football. Chertanovo equalized with a shot that went through the visiting keepers legs. I know that commenting on the poor quality of keepers in the women’s game is a bit of a lazy cliché but the Yenisey goalie looked dodgy the last time I saw her and she was equally at sea in this game missing crosses, clattering defenders and generally causing jitters whenever she was called upon. A bit like me when I played. I don’t see her lasting long at this level.

It was one each at the break and with the sun shining directly into our eyes I had little appetite for viewing the remaining 45 minutes. We negotiated security for the second time and caught a cab into town for our tea at a Korean barbecue place. A check the next morning revealed that Yenisey took the points with a 3-2 win.

Dinamo Moscow v CSKA Moscow, Sunday 16th May 2021, 2pm.

May 21, 2021

The top two divisions in Russia concluded their league programmes this weekend and as I’ve not seen a derby fixture yet I thought I’d better get along to the Premier League finale at the Lev Yashin stadium. I’ve been to see Dinamo at home a couple of times previously and it’s an easy fixture with the metro stopping right outside of the ground.

It’s also handy for visiting somewhere on the way as there is a change of line close to the centre that makes popping above ground an easy option. This time Jen and I called in at Red Square, intending to have a look around inside the Kremlin. The square itself was a lot quieter than usual, maybe as a result of it being early Sunday morning, but more likely due to fewer foreign tourists being in town.

There’s always something going on though and whereas last time there was an ice skating rink blocking the views of the historic buildings this time it was the stage for a concert being erected. If there is ever a time when it is empty then I’m tempted to turn up at about 5am to try and get the place to myself.

As Jen and I walked towards the Historical Museum at the top end we noticed that the doors to Lenin’s Mausoleum were open and people were heading in. Previously it hadn’t opened on Sundays but maybe they have changed the hours for the summer. There was a queue at the far end of Red Square and so we joined that. Half an hour later we had passed through the scanner and we were into the Mausoleum grounds. There are a few monuments to other unknown fellas, but they didn’t detain us for long and we were soon inside the chilled and badly lit building.

Jen had done a bit of checking and she reckons that there are five dead leaders with their bodies on show to the public. Apart from Lenin there are the two Kims in North Korea, some south american bloke and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. We saw what was left of Mr. Minh when visiting Hanoi a few years ago and so if we were to start ‘collecting’ embalmed leaders then today would take us to forty per cent along the route to completion.

As you might expect no photography was allowed, but there are plenty on the internet. Jen reckoned that his right eye looked a bit ropey and his fingers had a brown tinge to them. Maybe he had been creosoting a fence in his final days. I thought he looked just like Sean Dyche, but more serene and without the mental scars from that Chesterfield semi-final. Overall though he was in decent nick considering his circumstances. I know people still alive who look rougher.

On the way out we were directed past busts of other important dead people. I recognized the fellas from the eighties, but nobody before apart from Stalin. He had extra flowers on his marble base, so is clearly still fondly remembered by some people in these parts. I understand the belief that things were better in the olden days, we get plenty of that in the UK and there is still a certain nostalgia for the CCCP even among Russians too young to remember it, but come on, Stalin? Really?

As we were back at the bottom end of Red square we decided it was probably a good time to have a look inside St. Basil’s Cathedral. That’s the famous one you always see on the telly and currently obscured by concert scaffolding as above. It was a tenner for foreigners to get in and a fiver for locals. Fair enough. If you can afford to be travelling around you can subsidise the locals.

As we went in we passed a group of worshippers singing away in a side room with an altar. I doubt that they had paid and I was a little surprised that we were allowed to mosey around at the same time as a service was taking place, I don’t think that it would have been too difficult to limit admission to those times outside of services. The cathedral was actually four churches inside the same building with each in different states of repair or restoration. Some were pretty fancy.

Other areas seemed to be partially restored, whilst some areas had been painted over with a fake brickwork pattern. Who would think that is a good idea? Just leave whatever was there previously and then restore that if you want, but don’t add another layer of nonsense that will also no doubt be removed at some point.

With the culture done we had some lunch before heading to the stadium. I don’t really care what I eat and the place that was handy turned out to be a Jamie’s Italian. I though Mr. Oliver had gone bust and if our lunch was typical of what he does elsewhere then I’m not surprised. I can forgive my pizza being cold and the tv screens that showed him and the old bloke he worked with sticking their fingers in every thing they cooked. What was just about unbearable though was the same crap Ed Sheeran song being played on a loop non-stop. The same song. Once was bad enough but we had to listen to it all the way through our lunch. Jen had a theory that the management must have been trying to get their staff to quit. I certainly wouldn’t have lasted a day if it had been me, one lunchtime was enough.

After scoffing our lunch as quickly as we could we took the metro to the ground. It was busier than previously with a lot more police. I suppose with it being a Moscow derby that could be expected. Lots of the fans were dressed in black, particularly those from CSKA, with many of them sporting the Stone Island gear that I’m told suggests that they might be up for a bit of trouble.

We had quite posh seats for this game. Previously I’ve been in the upper tier but by the time I got around to buying tickets all that were left were tier two seats at forty five quid. We shared an entrance with people in executive boxes but that’s as posh as it got, although I suppose the concourse was less crowded.

Visitors CSKA had to win if they were to have a chance of a top four European spot, albeit in the new third tier UEFA Conference competition. Even then they needed results for the two teams above them to go their way. Dinamo had nothing to play for apart from local bragging rights and I did wonder whether they might mentally already be on their holidays.

It seemed as if I’d called it right when CKSA took the lead in the first half. The goal revealed just how many of their fans were located outside of the designated area behind the goal. They wouldn’t have got away with celebrating like that at many English grounds.

The atmosphere in general was very good, with both fans having singing sections behind the goal and the twelve thousand attendance around double that I’d previously experienced under covid restrictions. As there were only a handful of tickets left a week before the game I assume that the game had sold out.

With results elsewhere favourable to CKSA it looked for a while like their European dream might be on. Dinamo were keen to make a game of it though and equalized in the second half before quickly taking the lead.

CKSA levelled late on but when pushing for the winner conceded a third to end their hopes. The loss left them in sixth and free to do whatever they like on Thursday nights next season. Maybe there is a Russian version of The Bill for them to watch. The win for Dinamo brought them level on points with their local rivals but also outside of the European spots.

FC Troitsk v SShOR Torpedo Moscow 2, Thursday 13th May 2021, 7pm

May 19, 2021

Recently I discovered an App that may very well be the best thing about the internet ever. Midget porn and bad taxidermy websites aside obviously. It’s called futbology and for seventy-nine pence a month it tells me of all the football matches going on within various radii of me.

In Russia it extends as far down as the sixth tier, way beyond any other site providing accurate information that I’ve found so far. It even has a getting there link which tells me how long it will take in current traffic conditions. I’ve a feeling that my attendances at football games, particularly lower league matches, will drastically increase.

The first game selected from the App list was at Troitsk. It’s around an hour away in a rush-hour taxi from where we live in south-west Moscow.

Jen and I were late in setting off and so we missed the first twenty-five minutes. I’m fine with that, I don’t need to see the whole game and on this occasion I was simply relieved that the App worked and that when we arrived there was actually a match taking place as described.

FC Troitsk were taking on SShOR Torpedo Moscow 2 in Division B of the Moscow League. I think that this is the fifth tier overall. Troitsk were in light and dark green but could just as easily have been identified by them being older, fatter and balder than their development side opponents. I’ll call the visitors Torpedo as I’ve no idea what SShOR means. The weird combination of upper and lower case seems correct as there are other sides with the same prefix. Maybe there will another App available before long to explain these things to me.

Stadion Troisk has a capacity of a thousand, mainly in the single uncovered seating area that runs the full length of one side of the pitch. When we arrived I’d have estimated that there were around forty people watching although I think a lot of them were just waiting to collect their kid from the football and hockey training at the adjacent pitch.

Right on half-time a Torpedo striker was clattered by the keeper Schumacher style. Harald, rather than Michael, although Michael wasn’t adverse to shunting someone out of the way if the situation required it. The striker screamed for a good few minutes or so and it was clear that he wouldn’t be taking any further part. The physio, who might also have been his manager, piggy backed him away and eventually someone else piggy backed him to a car and presumably to hospital.

With the body removed and a yellow issued to the keeper Torpedo tucked the resulting penalty away to take the lead. Six away fans to my right celebrated the goal.

The triage and piggy backed removal resulted in seven minutes being added to the first half which was enough for Triotsk to win a penalty of their own. The ref thought about it for a few seconds before giving it. I was a good fifty yards further away than he was and had no doubts but there’s no harm in taking your time. One all.

For a game so inconsequential I was surprised to see it all being recorded. At half-time the camera crew wanted a chat with us, no doubt seeking my expert analysis. Unfortunately, I had to tell them that I ‘net spraken ruski’. It’s all I’ve learned so far but it usually does the trick in warding off unwanted attention.

The second half coincided with the sun going down and small floodlights coming on which were more appropriate for garden security than a football match. In the gloom a few of the players looked to be trying to settle scores and ended up with yellows for their trouble. There were some outrageous misses as the play went from end to end but neither side could force the winner and it ended one each.

Sochi v Rotor Volgograd, Friday 7th May 2021, 8pm

May 18, 2021

Sochi is somewhere that a few of my colleagues have visited for a holiday. As a seaside resort it didn’t really have much appeal to me until I realized that I could combine a weekend away with a trip to a match. I wonder if that was part of the thinking of the old Soviet leaders when they would visit their summer dachas there and dip their feet in the Black sea. In the souvenir shop windows there were miniature busts of Stalin. It’s hard to imagine seeing similar ones in Cambodia for the likes of Pol Pot.

Despot tat aside Sochi was well worth a visit. It’s a two and a quarter hour flight from Moscow and Jen and I had a hotel at the beach where we were able to take our pick of the bars and restaurants that stretched out for a mile or two in each direction.

The game was at the Fisht stadium. It had been built for the 2014 Winter Olympics and at that time it had a fully enclosed roof. It was modified for the 2018 World Cup with a section of roof being cut away to make it open to the air. We’d bought tickets in advance for 1500 rubles, which is quite expensive for Russia, but I could probably have got cheaper ones if I’d selected seats at the end.

Our taxi dropped us off with more than an hour to go to the 8pm kick-off and so we went for our tea in a restaurant within a fairground nearby. You could see the stadium from there.

Whilst I’d read that the stadium design was meant to be based upon snow-topped mountains it looked more like a jellyfish to me. With the Black Sea shores nearby that seemed highly appropriate too. The stadium lighting changed colour frequently which again seemed right for a jelly fish theme although I haven’t the foggiest if jellyfish do change colour. It seems like something that they would do but I’m no marine biologist.

Incidentally, I had bathroom lighting that changed colour like that about fifteen years ago. It was like having a bath in a seventies nightclub. There was an mp3 player built into the bath as well so that I could add the appropriate music if I wanted. I really cannot imagine what possessed me to agree to that whilst in the bathroom shop. I can only put it down to the fact that I was a dickhead in those days. Although no matter what point in life I’m at if I look back x number of years I always think what a dickhead I was in those days. Whilst I’m currently sure that my dickhead days are behind me I expect that in ten years time I’ll look back to now and conclude that I was a dickhead in 2021 as well.

We had quite good seats for this game, although at fifteen quid they should have been. They were midway between the penalty box and the half-way line and fifteen rows up if the first tier. We had some Rotor fans above us with the singing Sochi fans to our left. There were also lots of small children present but with it being a Friday night it was an ideal time for them to be staying up late.

Sochi were in white with Rotor in blue and with two games of the season to go Sochi were fighting for a European spot. They were in fifth place but a point would take them back into the top four as this was the first of the weekend games. A win was vital though to their chances. Rotor were third bottom and looking to try and avoid slipping into the bottom two relegation spots.

Sochi thought that they had opened the scoring after about five mins, but with the teams lined up ready to restart the ref was still stood waiting with his finger to his earphone awaiting the VAR decision. No goal – offside. A couple of minutes later we had the same scenario after the ball had been bundled into the net and the keeper clattered by either a striker or his own defender.  This time it counted and Sochi were one up.

As a fan I hate VAR. I want to be able to celebrate a Boro goal after no more than a quick glance at the lino. Although I’m more tolerant of it if it succeeds in chalking off a goal against us. As a neutral I quite like it. There’s the initial fun of watching people celebrate until the VAR sign goes up to toy with their emotions. Then the brief pause and if you are lucky you get a ref sheepishly recalling someone he has sent off from halfway down the tunnel.

Both teams created a lot but were struggling to finish. Rotor equalized on the half hour with what looked like a goal from nothing, so much so that sensing no threat I’d briefly glanced away to check out the altercation between the steward charged with enforcing the mask wearing and an old bloke who insisted that covering his chin was sufficient. From the reaction of the Rotor team the goal must have been a bit special.

At half time I had a wander, the queues for the food and drinks were long enough for me not to bother but I was able to get a photo from behind the goal. In the second half both teams had their chances. As time went on it was clear that Rotor were settling for the draw with plenty of time wasting.

Temperatures dropped a bit in the second half and as it had been too hot earlier to bring coats I wondered if we would last until the end. At eighty minutes I was tempted to clear off but suspected that there was drama to come. There was. In added time a Sochi player shot through a crowded box to angle the ball in to the corner. His team mates celebrated by diving on top of him in a way that it wouldn’t surprise me if that was his season done.

I felt sorry for Rotor. They deserved a point but that’s how it goes in a relegation battle. Sochi moved temporarily into third whilst they waited for their rivals to play their own penultimate games.

Nizhny Novograd v Spartak Moscow 2, Sunday 2nd May 2021, 4pm

May 16, 2021

Weekends away have pretty much been off the agenda in the last year or so, but with Russia seemingly having put covid firmly into the past and with Jen back in the same country as me it was time for us to take a trip. A bank holiday weekend meant that me working on a Saturday wasn’t an issue and so late afternoon we took a taxi to Kursky station to catch a train to Nizhny Novograd.

Whilst waiting on our platform I noticed a few kids in track suits. Closer inspection revealed that they were the Spartak Moscow second team who were the opponents in the game that we would be seeing the following day. I suppose one of the reasons that they looked so young, apart from everyone looking so young when you get to my age, is that reserve teams are allowed to compete in the second tier and below and are development sides. There’s not much point packing them with grizzled old pro’s even if you could do.

One of the players got separated from his chums and ended up in our carriage. I’m pleased to report that he behaved himself.

The three and three-quarter hour journey was a pleasure. For a start we were facing in the direction of travel. Secondly, we had seats that seemed like business class and finally we were constantly fed and watered with good stuff throughout the journey. My recollection was that I’d just booked bog-standard tickets so every additional benefit was a welcome surprise. We were even given complimentary shoe-horns in case we struggled to get our shoes back on after travelling in the complimentary slippers.

I’d booked a hotel about ten minutes walk from the station. I’ve no idea why I did that as there was nothing going on in the area. I’d have been better off booking somewhere where the bars and restaurants are and avoided having to get a taxi everywhere.

Nizhny Novograd seems to be a city under reconstruction. We went for a wander around their Kremlin but couldn’t get inside due to ongoing refurbishment works. The building dates from around the eleventh century but in the wall repairs that were being carried out the replacement bricks were brand new and cheap looking. I wouldn’t have used them on a garden wall never mind a restoration of an historic monument.

With the Kremlin shut we walked around the old part of town hoping to cross the river in a chair lift but it was a public holiday weekend and I think that half the town had the same idea. Without the time or the inclination to wait in a fifty yard long snaking queue we skipped it and headed for the game instead.

The Nizhny Novograd stadium was built for the World Cup. One of the games that it hosted was the one where England put six past Panama. I remember watching that one in a Saint Petersburg bar with Paul, never imagining that I’d end up working in Russia a couple of years later. I think it might have been the afternoon when I spilled my pint on him.

There were sizeable queues outside the stadium. We had printed out our five quid tickets and were directed to a specific turnstile where we were temperature tested, scanned and searched as is normal these days.

One of the features at Russian games is that it is only me who thinks that the match itself will be enough, so there are often people walking around on stilts, dancers or bands playing. Today we were treated to a line of vintage cars as our added extra. We loitered a little too long and ended up missing the kick-off which is quite embarrassing when you consider that we had arrived in town the previous day.

The stadium wasn’t very impressive for a recent World Cup ground. The design stuck me as a bit dull and the concrete steps up to concourse were already crumbling away. I’d caught a glimpse of the old stadium that it replaced when arriving at the station and I’d have preferred to have seen this second-tier game there.

Spartak had a few hundred fans in the upper tier behind the goal. I’ve watched their development team twice previously and despite this game being outside of Moscow it was a bigger turnout from them than at either of those earlier games.

It was a quiet first half apart from a Spartak player being sent off. The ref had been planning a yellow but the reactions of the home players and no doubt some lino chat in his headphones caused him to pull out a red instead. It might have been the lad that was in our carriage. Perhaps he wasn’t so well-behaved after all.

Nizhny Novograd opened the scoring just before half-time with the fella almost walking the ball into the net. We spent the interval queuing for non-existent coffee and then missed the second Nizzy Novvy goal as we edged our way back to our seats soon after the restart.

There was a third goal right at the end from someone who turned his defender well, bore down on the keeper and then coolly tucked it away. A moment or two later the same bloke won a penalty. His captain wouldn’t let him take it though and someone else made it four. There was almost a fifth goal straight afterwards but someone shot instead of squaring it for an easy opportunity. The win kept Nizhny Novograd in third place with a play-off spot looking likely. Maybe they’ll have the Kremlin finished for a return to the Premier League.

CSKA Moscow Women v Yenisey Women, Sunday 18th April 2021, 2pm

April 27, 2021

I’d had the Oktyabr Stadium on my list for a while but none of the games there had fallen on a day when I was free to attend. The new season of the Women’s Supreme League has recently kicked off though and this gave me an opportunity for a Sunday visit.

Jen and I arrived at the gate a minute or two before kick-off having been distracted by a youth game on the auxiliary pitch next door and then by a bloke playing in a five-a side game with his small kids and their friends and who lost his mind over a kid who instead of shooting from the pass he had made to him, dummied it to allow someone else to take the shot.

Angry Dad berated all involved then stomped off to the outer fence and flung his gloves to the floor. I was sorely tempted to stay and watch the remainder of that game rather than head into the real match.

The lure of the game in the main stadium won out though and we made our way to the entrance gate where we were given free tickets, presumably to keep track of the extent of the attendance, and then underwent the usual temperature check, scan and pat-down.

Only one side of the stadium was in use and there were only alternate blocks of seating open. We ignored the first block which had around forty CSKA fans stood singing, skipped the next block which was taped off and settled for seats towards the back of the third block in.

The game was being televised and so there were cameras around the pitch and one at the top of the stand near to us. We also had a stills photographer with an enormous camera mounted on a five-foot long pole to our left. I normally feel as if I’m going over the top with my bridge camera but on this occasion I fitted right in.

Oktyabr stadium looked fairly old. I can’t say much more than that as I tried to find a bit of info online but couldn’t. All the metal railings looked as if they were from the forties or fifties and the running track around the pitch might have been something that Alf Tupper would have “run ‘em” on. There may have been terracing on the opposite side to us at one time but these days it is overgrown with weeds.

The team in white opened the scoring in the first half. I’d assumed that they were Yenisey, with CSKA in red, but I’d got it the wrong way around and it was the hosts that had taken the lead.

It was still one-nil at half-time and we went for a wander outside so that I could take a photo of the main stand. We then popped into a café where the woman behind the counter was adamant that they had no sugar for the coffee. I don’t use it myself but I can’t imagine that any place serving hot drinks would last long with that sort of approach.

Second half we got a bit of light drizzle and it was a lot colder than I’d anticipated. It was hard to estimate the crowd but I’d have thought that there were maybe two hundred or so braving the conditions.

CKSA doubled their lead in the second half with a clever little dink from one of their strikers. She was only around eight yards out but managed to strand the Yenisey goalie by getting the ball up and down again from close range.

There was an added treat on the way out as we stumbled across people sword fighting. There looked to be more fancy flourishes than serious stabbing attempts but it was worth pausing to watch.

The win for CSKA maintained their early season unbeaten run and kept them at the top of the four-game long league. Yenisey remained mid-table despite the loss.

CSKA Moscow U19 v Lokomotiv 2 U19, Sunday 18th April 2021, 1.15pm

April 21, 2021

This was another bonus ground hopping game, my second in the past fortnight. Jen and I had turned up at Oktyabr Stadium for a CSKA Moscow women’s fixture and I’d spotted a match going on at the pitch next to the main ground. It’s great when something like that happens. An additional ground on the list with no more effort other than strolling around to the gate and passing through the unmanned and unplugged metal detector.

The game was twenty odd minutes into the first half and a youth team game between CSKA and Lokomotiv 2. I’m guessing that the 2 meant Lokomotiv’s second-string team and I’m also guessing that it was Lokomotiv Moscow. Not that it really matters.

The home side were dressed up as Barcelona with the visitors in white. There were fans down one side of the ground, some in a small stand, others leaning up against the perimeter fence. I imagine most had a family connection to someone on the pitch.

We only stayed for around ten minutes as I wanted to maximise our chances of getting into the main stadium for the next game. CSKA had mentioned online that capacity was limited due to covid and that latecomers might miss out. Nevertheless, the visit still counts and it took the total of different grounds where I’ve attended a match to three hundred and fifty-six.