Sometimes, there’s even a chance to see a bit of football at a football stadium. Kazan Arena and Sochi’s Olympic Fisht offered multi-sport spectaculars, but Spartak’s Otkrytiye Stadium, which hosts the third-place play-off in the Confederations Cup, was my first football experience of a Russian new-build. After an itinerant history, the Red-and-Whites, the so-called ‘People’s team’, finally had a home of their own.
It was a painful gestation. Relatively soon after I arrived in Moscow in 2006, the first stone was ceremonially laid. We waited. And waited. Jokers started offering odds on the date that the second stone might be laid. The site, close to Tushino airfield, already had an unfinished metro station; now it seemed ready for an unfinished arena to go with it. CSKA was enduing similarly slow progress with their new ground, Dynamo left their old home in 2009 with plans to return in 2012, but have yet to play a game at their proposed super-stadium on Leningradsky Prospekt.
The World Cup changed all that. Suddenly, stadium-building was the thing in Russia. Spartak got busy and the new venue was ready in time for a seamless move away from their old Luzhniki home before it closed its doors for a FIFA make-over. The People’s team got into bed with a bank – the Otkrytiye, or opening, of the stadium name – and by 2014 was ready to play at the first purpose built top-flight football stadium in Russia since Lokomotiv’s new ground at Cherkizovo.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, of course. Plans to commemorate the grand opening with a friendly against Dynamo Kiev, Spartak’s old rivals for the Soviet championship, were thwarted by rising political tensions. Serbia, always a reliable Russian ally, provided alternative opposition in the form of Red Star Belgrade. The opening league game, meanwhile, was a Moscow derby against Torpedo. It had all the hallmarks of an ideal start: opponents local enough to be interesting but weak enough not to threaten an upset.
The game drew a decent crowd – 36,000 in total, not quite a sell-out, but better than average for the Russian Premier League. With Spartak stuttering under the unconvincing management of Murat Yakin, there was also a reminder from the fans that on-field expectations were not being met: prior to kick off, the banner showed Spartak heroes of old with a slogan exhorting the current team to prove themselves worthy of the club’s history. On the day, fired by two goals from Quincy Promes, now supposedly interesting Liverpool and Spurs, they did. Over the course of a season that ended with neither silverware nor a place in Europe, the class of 2014-15 fell short.
As for the arena, it has much to recommend it – especially compared with the vast, soulless bowl of the old Luzhniki. No running track and, from three sides of the field, a sense of being close to play, on top of the action. Some nice touches on the exterior, like the big screens that mimic retro TV sets to play highlights of the great Spartak teams of old, reinforced the sense that this is a real football stadium. In another novelty for a Russian stadium, the concourse areas are attractive; the table football set-up is a nice touch.
But, as ever, there’s a catch. The decision to make one side into a giant VIP / executive box area puts a nasty hole in the atmosphere. Suddenly we’ve got a large-scale version of Kenilworth Road; it’s easy to feel that neither attendances nor ambience are well-served by this. It’s also unclear whether the stadium will ever regularly fill up if the team cannot deliver sustained success. That opening game was not a sell-out, and by the end of the season there were just 12,000 takers for a home defeat against struggling Ufa. International action, especially the Euro 2016 qualifier against Sweden when Leonid Slutsky took over from Fabio Capello and launched an unlikely recovery that secured a place in France, brings out bigger crowds – but it’s clear that fans in Moscow need something to get behind before they’ll turn up in large numbers. Whether Spartak can deliver that kind of sustained success will determine whether this 45,000-seater arena ends up as a white elephant or not.
Interested in Russian football? Groundhoppers’ new e-book, Snow on the Seats, gives a personal journey around the country and its stadiums. Written in the build-up to the 2018 World Cup, it offers a glimpse at how Russia, and its football, has changed in the run-up to the tournament. Available for download to Kindle devices and a bargain at £3.49, it’s a unique primer for this summer’s excitement. Find it here