How the Luzhniki Stadium became a monument through 60 years of triumph and tragedy

How the Luzhniki Stadium became a monument through 60 years of triumph and tragedy

Russia’s epic World Cup victory against Spain in the round of 16 unleashed celebrations throughout Moscow that stretched across this massive country of nearly 145 million people and 11 time zones. The unexpected win led to an outpouring of celebration and public displays of patriotism not seen since the end of World War II. As vehicular traffic leading to Red Square came to a halt and fans streamed into the street, the chants of “Ro-si-ya! Ro-si-ya!” filled the skies of this massive city.

Before most of Moscow’s central district went into a state of delirium and the streets became mobbed with flag-waving celebrants, the heart of the party – and the deafening roar that got it all started – took place just a few miles south of this sprawling metropolis. One of the biggest upsets in the World Cup’s 88-year history took place inside the 81,000-seat Luzhniki Stadium.

A football temple that has become as popular as the ornate Saint Basil’s Cathedral in recent weeks among Russians, the venue will be the setting for the biggest game of the year when it hosts the World Cup final on July 15. The Luzhniki is also the largest football venue in Russia and one of the biggest in Europe.

Russia’s sporting heart and soul have always resided at the Luzhniki. It was fitting that the stadium would host the round of 16 match between Russia and Spain. The fans held their collective breaths for most of the match but burst into jubilation once the home side won the penalty shootout, where goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev made two saves. It was the latest chapter in this storied venue’s 62-year history that has included both success and tragedy. Russia surpassed expectations at this World Cup with help from the Luzhniki crowd, which served as a 12th man.

“I’m not the man of the match. The man of the match is our team and our fans,” Akinfeev said, referring to the cheering from of the 78,011 fans inside the Luzhniki. The players were also quick and wholesome in their praise of the fans after their deflating exit to Croatia.

At this World Cup, the Luzhniki has already hosted other epic games, including Russia’s 5-0 defeat of Saudi Arabia in the tournament opener and Mexico’s 1-0 upset of Germany during the group stage. Revamped in 2013 to host the World Cup, it has been the centrepiece venue at the finals.

“I was emotionally overwhelmed and could not help feeling excited,” former Russia captain Alexei Smertin, who also played for Chelsea, Portsmouth, Charlton Athletic and Fulham, said of his visit to the refurbished grounds last year. “It’s a feeling which always accompanies me every time I am on the field. The stadium has come to be a very comfortable and cosy place now that the seats are closer to the field.”

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Built in the Stalinist Empire style, the Luzhniki was completed in 1956 at the height of the Cold War. Vestiges of that area are still alive near the grounds. The façade has been restored, despite all the modern amenities located inside, and a 25-foot-high statue of Vladimir Lenin still dominates the main entrance.

The venue has its roots not in football, but athletics. The decision by the then-Soviet government to construct such a stadium was in response to a brewing international phenomenon – the ability of Soviet athletes to dominate at the Summer Olympic Games. The 1952 Helsinki Games saw the USSR capture 71 medals, 22 of which were gold, for second in the overall standings.

The Games were a big success, which helped to fuel the need for the communist regime to develop future Olympians. The move was part of larger state policy – something other communist governments across Eastern Europe would emulate – for much of the ensuing three decades. As part of its propaganda machine, the Soviets embarked on the construction of a sports complex. The venue, part of a larger sports park, was to meet all modern international standards while also serving as a training base for the county’s Olympic teams as well as large domestic events.

Located in the city’s Khamovniki District, an area known for its expensive housing, the Luzhniki is Russia’s sporting jewel, despite the construction of Fisht Stadium in Sochi, which successfully hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics. The stadium had originally been named the Grand Arena of the Central Lenin Stadium, a homage to the Russian revolutionary. It got its present name in 1992 following the collapse of communism, inspired from the green areas along the bend of the Moskva River, near where the stadium is located, that roughly translates to mean “The Meadows.”

On the eve of the tournament, Alexei Sorokin, head of the 2018 World Cup Local Organising Committee, said the Luzhniki was the perfect place to host games of such magnitude: “This is an excellent, modern stadium that has been recently revamped, fully rebuilt, preserving elements of its former looks with overhauled technologies,” Sorokin told the Russian news agency TASS. “Of course, it is unique in many respects – this is an excellent blend of memory, history and modern technologies. It is convenient and comfortable for watching football matches.”

The victory on penalties against Spain may have arguably featured the loudest crowd, but the largest to ever witness a football match at the stadium was on 13 October 1963 when the Soviet Union defeated Italy 2-0 before 102,538 fans in a game that served as a qualifier for the 1964 European Championship. The Italians, led by the brilliant Gianni Rivera, couldn’t contain the Soviet onslaught that day, nor the roar of the home crowd. The USSR, the defending champions at the time after capturing the title in 1960, had defeated a strong Italy side and would go on to qualify for the four-nation tournament. 

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The USSR, at the time, was not focused primarily on football. With Central Lenin Stadium at the centre of the USSR’s training, the country would go on to dominate at the Olympics, in an array of disciplines, for decades. The venue’s ultimate coronation was the 1980 Summer Olympics.

With an expanded capacity of 103,000 that summer, it hosted both the opening and closing ceremonies. It also hosted an array of events, including track and field and football matches. Like this summer’s World Cup, the 1980 Games made history. It was the first time the Olympics were held in Eastern Europe. The only blemish was the boycott that enveloped the Olympics after 66 nations – spearheaded by the United States – decided not to participate following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. As a result, the Soviet Union, with no competition from American athletes, captured 41 medals in athletics – 15 of which were gold – to become the winningest country that summer. 

In football, the USSR came into the 1980 Games amongst the favourites. While the 16-team tournament was hampered by the boycott, it did feature a few countries with rich footballing traditions, including favourites Czechoslovakia, winners of the 1976 European Championship, and Yugoslavia.

The USSR went on an impressive run that included a 4-0 win against Venezuela and a 3-1 victory over Zambia, with both games played before 80,000 fans at the Central Lenin Stadium. The team was managed by Konstantin Beskov, who had also coached the USSR at the 1964 European Championship and would go on to guide them at the 1982 World Cup in Spain.

A 1-0 defeat to East Germany in the semi-finals eventually led them to the bronze medal. The Soviets featured several players who would go on to achieve success that decade, including goalkeeper Rinat Dasaev and defenders Vagiz Khidiyatullin, Sergei Baltacha and Volodymyr Bezsonov. All of them would finish as runners-up to the Netherlands at the 1988 European Championship.

Although the stadium has become known for the good it helped produce regarding Russia’s sporting greatness, it’s not without tragedy. On 20 October 1982, 66 people were killed in a stampede during a UEFA Cup second round match featuring Spartak Moscow and Dutch side Haarlem. Spartak had famously defeated Arsenal 8-4 on aggregate in the first round, including a 5-2 win in the second leg at Highbury.

Unusually cold and snowy conditions for October had forced stadium officials to close two of the venue’s four exits. That was followed by the decision to cram all the spectators into a single section, something that would prove fatal in the end. When the 17,000 fans, including a few hundred from Holland, stormed one exit closest to the train station to beat the rush near the end of the game, the situation grew dire.

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What exactly caused the deaths depends on who you ask. Some witnesses told investigators that a woman fell on an icy step at the bottom of a staircase after losing her shoe. Unbeknownst to the fans further back, a chain reaction of bodies pushing up against one another led to the fatal pile-up. Other accounts, however, tell a different tale. Some told investigators that fans started to leave with a few minutes left in the match. The home side was ahead 1-0 following a goal from Edgar Gess after just 16 minutes. With large numbers of fans departing, a second goal in the 89th minute by Sergei Shvetsov forced many to turn back after they had heard the roar of the crowd. It was when these two opposing groups ran into each other that tragedy ensued.

Former Russian tennis star Andrei Chesnokov, who was only 16 at the time and inside the stadium, told The Guardian in 2008: “People were falling over, knocking others to the ground like dominoes.” To save himself, Chesnokov recalled: “I vaulted over a barrier, stepping through row upon row of bodies. Some put out their hands, crying, ‘Help me! Save me!’ But they were stuck under piles of corpses. I managed to pull out a young lad and carry him to an ambulance medic. But he was dead. I saw at least 100 bodies laid out in rows on the running track at the bottom of the gangway.”

The calamity remains Russia’s worst sporting disaster. Although 66 fans – many of them children and teenagers – were officially reported killed, several subsequent investigations and witnesses accounts put the death toll closer to 350, something that would make it the worst disaster in the history of football. The day after the game, the Moscow daily, Vechernaya Moskva, featured a short note following its match report: “An incident occurred yesterday in Luzhniki. After the football match, some spectators were injured.” The report doesn’t mention any dead or injured. President Leonid Brezhnev, who died 21 days later, and the communist regime did everything in their power to suppress news and details from being made public. 

Four stadium officials were eventually charged and convicted for their part in the disaster. In 1992, on the 10th anniversary of the tragedy, and when communism had finally collapsed, a memorial was erected near the site. In 2007, on the 25th anniversary, a special match was organised – thanks in large part to the work of former Russia manager Guus Hiddink – between the former Spartak Moscow and Haarlem players took place at the stadium.

The year the memorial was erected was also when the stadium was renamed Luzhniki. The venue had finally entered the modern era and became home to some of Europe’s biggest matches. In 1996, an extensive renovation project saw the construction of a roof over the stands. The venue hosted the UEFA Cup final in 1999, won by Parma 3-1 against Marseille. Parma featured a star-studded lineup that would go on to have success for Italy’s national team, including goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and defender Fabio Cannavaro.

In 2008, the Luzhniki was chosen by UEFA to host the 2008 Champions League final, won by Manchester United on penalties against Chelsea. The first all-English Champions League final had ended 1-1 following extra time – famous for John Terry’s missed penalty that could’ve won the game. Terry’s slip on the turf forced his kick wide. While he became the brunt of many jokes among Manchester United fans, the Russian organisers received nothing but praise. At the time, a spokesman for the British Embassy in Moscow said: “The security and logistical arrangements put in place by the Russian authorities have been first-rate, as has been their cooperation with their visiting counterparts from the UK.”

On the eve of the match, Russian officials, fearing possible hooliganism from the 50,000 visiting English fans, prepared by employing massive security enhancements like extra police officers and closed-circuit cameras around the stadium’s perimeter, some of the same type of measures used at this World Cup. Like that final, this World Cup has been incident free as new chapters in the Luzhniki Stadium’s long history continue to be written.   

By Clemente Lisi @ClementeLisi

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