New East Digital Archive

Kick about: uncover Moscow’s rich football history on this capital tour

Russia’s capital boasts a fantastic footballing history — some of it hidden away, some of it monumental. Take a trip through time with our guided tour

25 May 2018

As an urban space, Moscow is constantly reinvented. Over the last hundred years, revolution, re-modelling, war, reconstruction and the dismantling of the Soviet Union altered the character of the city. More recently, as the 2018 World Cup hurtled into Muscovites’ consciousness, the changes continued. Streets were widened, parks opened or cleaned up and new, modern stadia unveiled around the city. City clubs Spartak, CSKA and Dinamo moved into new homes, while the venerable Luzhniki, which will host the World Cup final, underwent an expensive reconstruction program.

Despite the profound changes to the city, many aspects of Soviet and Russian football heritage remain. Markers of this rich history are hidden behind prominent buildings, in parks or on Moscow’s periphery. They follow the contours of the Soviet and Russian experience over the last hundred years, from the fading years of Tsarism to today.

We begin at the White House, to the west of the city centre where New Arbat meets Kutuzovsky Bridge. For many, the building conjures up two vivid images. The first is Boris Yeltsin, ceremoniously draped over the top of a tank. The second, two years later, features a burned and blackened facade, as forces loyal to President Yeltsin stormed the building to assert primacy over the Congress of People’s Deputies and the Supreme Soviet. During the conflict, in which pro-parliament forces also stormed the Ostankino television centre, 187 were officially declared to have died.

Nestled behind the graves of those who died in the conflict is a small football stadium. Follow the road to the right of the White House, in the direction of the American Embassy, and you will see its floodlights jutting out over the bushes. Here, the final years of Soviet football crashed into the new, capitalist Russia as the country’s first privately-owned football team occupied the stadium. The club, then known as Krasnya Presnya, was bought in 1990 by an Iranian businessman, Hussam Al-Khalidi. He renamed the club Asmaral, an amalgamation of the names of his three daughters and also the name of his company, a joint British-Soviet enterprise. Over the next few years, Asmaral battled with clubs around the Soviet Union and, following its dissolution, the new Russia. But despite a brief dalliance in the Russian top flight, Al-Khalidi’s team were relegated in 1993. They never returned. Asmaral plummeted down the leagues, Al-Khalidi lost interest and, eventually, in 2000 the club ceased to exist, leaving little but a trace of their once important role in shaping the post-Soviet game.

In the old days, despite regularly competing in European and international tournaments, Soviet football failed to really captivate a world audience. And yet the Soviet Union produced one of the original footballing greats: Lev Yashin. Unlike many of his Soviet counterparts, Yashin is instantly recognisable to football fans around the world.

The handsome, smiling figure, dressed all in black with hair swept sidewards, broke onto the world stage at the 1958 World Cup, the first to be televised internationally. He would go on to play a crucial role in the Soviet Union’s 1960 European Championship triumph — the only senior international tournament won by the country — win five Soviet Top Leagues and play 20 seasons for Dinamo Moscow. 55 years later, he remains the only goalkeeper to ever win the Ballon d’Or, the award for football’s best individual player in any given year, and was selected by a panel of journalists as the goalkeeper of the 20th century.

After his death in 1990, Yashin was buried in Vaganovskoye Cemetery. His gravestone features a stone silhouette of the goalkeeper as he is remembered around the world: with a ball in his hand. To reach it from the Kresnya Presnya Stadium, walk up Konyushkovskaya Ulitsa to Barrikadnaya metro station. Then take the purple line one stop to Ulitsa 1905 Goda and exit towards Bolshaya Dekabrskaya Ulitsa. Follow the road and you will reach Vagonkovskoye Cemetery.

After visiting Yashin’s grave, return to Ulitsa 1905 metro station, take the purple line three stops to Kuznetsky Most, change platforms to Lubyanka and then hop on the red line to Sokolniki. Exit and head north west up Ulitsa Strominka until you see the Znamensky Brothers Olympic Centre on the right.

The area, now a modern sporting facility, was the home ground of Moscow’s first officially registered football club, Sokolnichesky Klub Sporta, or SKS. The club was founded in 1896 by Robert Fulda, a graduate of the Moscow University Faculty of Law, before becoming registered in 1905. In 1909, SKS took part in the first ever Moscow Football League, another Fulda initiative, alongside Union, Britansky Klub Sporta and Morozovtsi, from nearby Orekhovo. Their involvement continued until 1912, when Fulda dedicated his time to the founding of the All-Russian Football Union. But the league continued in his absence, pushing on until 1922 and Soviet sporting reforms. By then, Fulda and SKS had done enough to permanently solidify football’s place within the culture of Moscow and the Soviet Union.

Some of the city’s historic football arenas remain. From SKS’s old site, take the metro from Sokolniki to Okhotny Ryad, before changing to the green line from Teatralnaya to Avtozavodskaya. After a short walk up Vostochnaya Ulitsa, you will find the home of Torpedo Moscow, one of the few traditional stadiums left in Moscow. At the moment the club are suffering in the third tier, but, for many fans, the stories they tell themselves about past greatness help their affection for the club endure.

Torpedo’s stadium is central to their sense of self. Opened in 1960, it is named after Eduard Strelstov, the club’s greatest ever player and a symbol of their past. Streltsov, whose statue looks out to fans approaching the stadium, played for the club in two spells, in the 1950s and in the 1960s. In between, he was sentenced to time in the gulag and given a life ban from professional football, after being accused of rape in controversial circumstances. For many Torpedo fans, Streltsov’s struggles with the Soviet authorities burnished rather than tarnished his legend. He was eventually released in 1963 and permitted to play amateur football. By 1964, Leonid Brezhnev had replaced Nikita Khrushchev at the head of the Soviet Union and the political weather changed. Streltsov was allowed to return to Torpedo for the 1965 season, guiding them to the Soviet Top League title in the year of his return. A Soviet Cup triumph followed, in 1968, as well as awards for the Soviet Union’s best player, in 1967 and 1968.

Across the river from the Streltsov Stadium, past the Danliov Monastery, is another site of importance for Soviet football history: the former Ploshchadka Vorovskogo. To reach it, take the metro from Avtozavodsakaya to Novokuznetskaya, before changing to the orange line from Tretyakovskaya to Shabolovskaya. Then exit towards Ulitsa Donskaya, before heading down Maly Kaluzhky Pereulok until you reach Leninsky Prospekt.

There, where the heaving bypass lies, is the site of the Soviet Union’s first official international match, in 1924. Scheduled for a November afternoon, the match was almost called off, but the teams decided to plough on through the snow. Turkey, the Soviet Union’s opponents, blended into their surroundings in their white shirts and white shorts. On the Soviet side, the players were unfamiliar with each other. The order to assemble was distributed with such haste that the team could not find any time to train together before the match. Nevertheless, 15,000 fans packed into the stadium. Before the game, according to local newspaper Krasny Sport, the roads, trams and buses were packed, taking fans in the direction of the stadium. They were not to be disappointed, as the Soviet Union managed to pick up a convincing 3-0 win, providing a touchstone from which the development of Soviet football progressed throughout the 1920s and beyond.

In the context of Moscow’s vast geography, the distance from the Soviet Union’s first footballing home to Russia’s current base is minimal. The new Luzhniki Stadium, which reopened in 2017 after four years of renovations, lies to the south-east of the former playing grounds at Ploshchadka Vorovskogo. In front of the stadium, the strident figure of Lenin looks over approaching fans; but greatest vista is found at the viewing platform on Vorobyovy Gory, or Sparrow Hills. To reach it from Leninsky Prospekt, take the T7 trolley bus 11 stops to Universitetskaya Ploshchad.

The view from the platform is one of Muscovites’ most treasured, especially on summer nights. When the weather is forgiving, people bring beer, vodka, guitars, skateboards and footballs to enjoy the evening, while 24-hour coffee vans remain close by. Behind the platform, there’s the Stalinist wedding cake of Moscow State University’s main building. To the left, the glass mass of Moscow City, the Russian capital’s answer to Canary Wharf. Straight ahead, the Luzhniki, the venue for the 2018 World Cup final and the symbolic home of Russian sport. It opened in 1956, hosting many of the greatest moments in Soviet and Russian sporting history, as well as one of its worst, the Luzhniki Disaster of 1982, during which 66 Spartak Moscow fans were crushed as their team played a UEFA Cup match against Haarlem. On 15 July, the world’s attention will once again be directed towards the Luzhniki. Few expect the Russian national team to really trouble the better teams in the tournament. But, whether Russia make it or not, the World Cup final will be a major addition to the rich history of football in Moscow.

Text: Eliot Rothwell
Top image: Leonid Sorokin
Bottom image: Lena Tsibizova