On May 22, 2016, Dynamo Moscow were relegated for the first time in their history. The first time I saw the team, almost 10 years earlier, they were in similar danger but managed to survive at the expense of Torpedo. Here are some memories from that game, my first ever trip to a Russian match.
Dynamo Moscow were in trouble. A once-great name of Soviet football found itself playing in a crumbling concrete stadium in front of dwindling crowds with a team of overseas mercenaries who were getting results. Relegation was an alarming possibility, for the first time in the club’s history. Amkar Perm were the visitors, perennial strugglers themselves. And the referee became the key figure in a game that showed just why the Blue-and-Whites were in such a parlous state.
To boost the crowd ticket prices were slashed to just 100 roubles (about £2 at the exchange rate of the day) or a mere 30 roubles (60p) in the ‘fan sector’. This had an impact on the crowd, attracting 10,000 to the game, but with a Loko vs CSKA derby across town the same afternoon, it was clear that Dynamo was the second choice for most fans. Getting a seat wasn’t a problem, even with halting Russian skills, although the awkward stoop to address the window of the ticket office was disconcerting.
Dynamo’s stadium, the old one, claims to be the most venerable in Russia. Its façade is a model of 1920s avant-garde aesthetics, from the blocky Д И Н А М О letters picked out above the main entrance to the constructivist details of the outer walls. A decade on, with work underway to transform the arena into a 21st-century stadium, those walls are subject to a preservation order. Beneath the scaffolding, developers promise, they remain; soon they might emerge renewed, like a butterfly from a cocoon of steel and tarpaulin, to flit effortlessly between tradition and modernity. Perhaps.
But the main bowl of seats had seen far better days. A proud, if outdated banner in the main stand hailed the 75th birthday of the stadium and the 80th birthday of the team, but the concrete was crumbling on all sides and the plastic seats were suffering from exposure to one Russian winter too many. The electronic scoreboard, a crude 1980s-style affair, suffered from broken bulbs as its stuttered its way through the afternoon’s teams. Only the floodlight pylons, soaring steel and a vast panel of glass bulbs, looked modern – but they too had that curiously dated look of the recently futuristic.
There was little futuristic on the field of play, either. Dynamo got off to an uncertain start, losing defender Denis Kolodin to injury after five minutes. On came Dmitry Khokhlov, a midfielder by trade, and once a bright prospect heading to play in sunnier climes with Real Sociedad and PSV Eindhoven. The fans around me in the South Stand began to mutter in a manner that suggested Mr. Khokhlov’s contribution to Dynamo’s cause that season wasn’t impressing them much. And so, far from home, I found myself in a ramshackle replica of Roker Park watching a struggling team depress its long-suffering fans. How could I fail to be hooked?
The Sunderland analogies continued. Dynamo went ahead through a Derlei header, only for the offside flag to cut short the celebrations. Amkar, a limited but hard-working opponent, stifled the game; Dynamo, stronger on paper but struggling on grass, failed to breakthrough again. When the ref tweaked his hamstring just before half-time it was one of the highlights of the game.
Back in action, and referee Igor Yegorev of Nizhny Novgorod was clearly out to prove that his injury hadn’t hampered his ability to hand down justice. A few months earlier a Russian ref had caused a minor sensation after dishing out 12 yellows and four reds in a World Cup game. Yegorev was on the case here, enlivening proceedings with 11 bookings and two dismissals. Derlei was the first to go, on 70 minutes. A second booking for a second bad tackle inside 15 minutes. It was becoming clear why Dynamo was struggling at the wrong end of the table. However, Amkar couldn’t capitalise: just seven minutes later their own Alexei Popov got his second yellow, seven minutes after his first.
“Forward, Dynamo, we are with you!” played the tannoy on the way out. At the next home game, against Krylya Sovietov, the crowd was back down to 5,000.
Centralny Stadion, Moscow, Russia
Russian Premier League, Sep. 17, 2006
Dynamo Moscow 0 Amkar Perm 0