Sachin Nakrani shares the story of his trip to Moscow to watch the Reds – with Russia’s capital defying its stereotype and proving hospitable rather than hostile.
Kicked in by hooligans, kicked in by riot police. Attacked with tear gas, attacked with knives. Racially abused, racially discriminated. Left beaten, battered and for dead.
These are things that did not happen to me in Moscow this week.
Drank lager, drank spirits. Laughed with mates, met new mates. Watched Liverpool, got frustrated with football. Ate a Twix.
These are things that did happen to me in Moscow this week.
And so it turned out to be a different trip to the one I’d been fearing ever since I decided to ‘do’ Spartak Moscow away. The decision was initially taken because I had the time off and a mate was up for it (as well as certain we would get tickets), but it didn’t take long for a sense of reality to kick in and for me to start paraphrasing that Paul Whitehouse character from The Fast Show: “Me, a brown-faced Brit in Moscow, the racist, hooligan capital of Europe? Am I fucking mad?”
And that’s before I had to complete the Visa application. Jesus, the Visa application. There have been international treaties less complicated to put together.
But the wheels were put into motion and before I knew it I found myself rocking up at Heathrow on a Monday afternoon with the clothes on my back, my wallet, passport, phone and a sniff of danger in the pursuit of watching the Reds in Europe.
And off we went, and back we came, via Zurich (on the way out) and Frankfurt (on the way back) and the only scar of the entire trip was the one left by another maddening Liverpool performance.
So here’s the breaking news: Moscow is sound. A sound place full of sound people and, during our 24-hours-and-bit anyway, far removed from the horror show of a city described in various news bulletins, documentaries and general word of mouth.
Not once did we feel threatened, or were threatened, and bar a few dickheads in the Spartak end who wanted to provoke a scrap after the game on Tuesday, the Russians came across as good people who want to get on with their lives like everyone else. Not their fault their leader is a provocative lunatic and a minority of their population like fighting at the football.
We landed in Moscow just after 2am local time on the Tuesday, and by ‘we’ I mean Rahul, Jamie and I. I know Rahul from the supporters’ club I’m part of in London. He’s 20, a student, went to every game last season. Absolutely loves watching the Reds play, the way I absolutely loved watching the Reds play when I was his age. I still do, but life happens, you get older, priorities change and there’s only so many times you can watch a centre-back with a Liverbird on his chest fail to do his job properly before you decide, “You know what, I can live without this from time to time”.
Jamie is Rahul’s mate. A bit older, goes to the match a lot, too. Nice lad right from the off and particularly so after he left us crash on his spare hotel bed before we hit the city and went to the game. (Rahul and I decided not to book a hotel as our flight on the Wednesday was at 6am and so we had to pretty much go straight from the ground to the airport. And before you get too curious – we slept head to toe).
We met Mark, a much-travelled Red from Swindon, at arrivals at Domodedovo Airport and together the four of us got on the Aeroexpress (imagine the Heathrow Express but less pricey and a bit more, well … Communist rule) and headed towards Moscow, getting off at the stop for Paveletskya Square just after 6am.
It was dark, a bit nippy, but the sense of a new day dawning was unmistakable. Sleepy-looking people shuffling slowly to work, shops opening, street cleaners making their move. And as daylight began to creep through the sky, our Uber showed up and flashed its lights.
We got in and headed for the Hilton Garden Inn (where Jamie and Mark were both staying). Total cost: 235 rubles; roughly £4. Cheap and cheerful, well as cheerful as a Russian taxi drive can be at just after six on a Tuesday morning.
On the way I took notice of the architecture so distinct to this part of the world. Buildings everywhere with flat facades, large windows and balconies; simple, beautiful, classic. Something that cannot be said of the flashing neon lights that punctuated the odd street and odd street corner. They seem to really like their bingo in Moscow.
Sleep at the Hilton was much welcome, as was the subsequent shower (Rahul and I did that completely separately) and then, a little after 1230pm, it was out and about in Moscow. Reds heading for Red Square.
We walked the streets and used the metro and what became increasingly apparent is that Moscow is like every major city – gorgeous in some parts, less so in others, noisy, busy, sprawling, lively and filled with people getting on with their lives, doing what people in hundreds of other places do on a Tuesday afternoon – getting from A to B, staring at their phone, not giving a shit about you and your mates. If there are gangs of Moscow skinheads waiting to kill outsiders, this must have been their day off.
Red Square is as epic as you’d imagine, a vast open space littered with tourists and attention-yanking monuments, none more so than the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed, otherwise known as Saint Basil’s Cathedral. Built from 1555 to 1561 on orders from Ivan the Terrible to commemorate the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan (according to Wikipedia), it’s an iconic structure and, on close inspection, a marvel of design and construction. The bright red bricking, the intricate patterning, the Soviet baubles. It’s all there in postcard-perfect order.
On the day we were in Red Square, there was also some random water skiing display going on outside the Four Seasons hotel, but the less said about that the better.
Thought that was policed & stewarded brilliantly last night. Nice to feel safe after St Petersburg. Shame we only could manage a draw!
— ???? ? (@Liver16bird) September 27, 2017
After a walk around the square, it was time to get the ale in. We first stopped at a plush but unpretentious bar (having got lost) and had a pint of Leffe (Mark and I did, anyway) before heading to an Irish pub called Dark Patrick’s, which word had it was where loads of Liverpool fans were gathering for pre-match pints. Well, word was wrong – when we finally arrived there around 5pm it was practically empty, with the only enthusiastic Reds in sight three Moldovan lads Jamie knew.
We sat with them, drank lager, ate steak and chips (really, really lovely steak and chips) and chatted about football. One of them asked if Liverpool and Everton fans really hated each other and I explained that they hated us but we pitied them. It was sound, a laugh, and together, at 6.45pm, exactly three hours before kick-off, we headed to the ground.
Handily, the Metro stop for the Otkritie Arena is called Spartak (on the purple line, in case you’re curious) and on arrival the increased police presence was noticeable. But the coppers were all fine, even the one who came over and asked if any of our group were taking a piss having spotted us moving towards a darkened corner outside the metro stop. “No officer, honest, we’re just admiring the stadium in the distance”, insisted one of the Moldovans, which was true, but Mark was taking a piss and I would’ve too had the cops not got involved.
We moved on and after some aimless walking instigated by the increasingly bladdered Moldovan lads (they’d brought a bottle of heart-burning Cognac with them), Rahul, Jamie, Mark and I jumped on one of the buses organised for away fans and headed to the away end. There we were met by tight security lines but again, they were all fine.
And then we were inside what is one properly impressive ground.
Opened in 2014, the Otkritie Arena is located in the north-west of Moscow and holds a little over 45,300 spectators. From the outside it resembles Munich’s Allianz Arena with its sweeping, doughnut shape and flashing red exterior. Inside it’s clean and spacious, very different to the piss-filled stadiums Reds who went to Spartak away in 1992 and 2002 had to endure. Saying that, it’s perhaps a bit too nice – overly clinical and lacking the character you’d want from a football ground in the old Soviet bloc. Where’s the running track and random goats, lads?
The Liverpool fans were located in the top tier behind the goal where we attacked in the first half. Rahul and I were on Row 1, which meant standing over the railings where our banners were hung. Loads of young lads joined us and as kick-off got closer the sense that a proper European away was brewing grew stronger and stronger. But ultimately, and sadly, it never truly took off.
Don’t get me wrong, we sang, but we were drowned out by Spartak’s consistently impressive support, in particular the fans located in the end behind the other goal, and for whatever reasons our lot didn’t hit too many high notes. That’s how it felt from the front of the class, anyway.
But it was still good to be there, seeing loads of proper, hardened Reds gathered in their causal clobber, catching up, patting backs, getting back into another season of following Liverpool FC around Europe.
For how long we don’t know given our start to this Champions League campaign. We should have six points but instead we have two. Loads of chances created but too many wasted; not many chances given up but too many conceded. We should have battered Spartak Moscow – they were poor – but Loris Karius flew through the air like a shit Superman and our forwards did literally everything but score enough goals.
Ah well. We go again. Maribor away next and we really should win that one. Will I be there? Probably not. These trips are expensive and I’m not in a position, or willing, to spend my way around Europe watching Jurgen’s funky and infuriating Reds. Besides, our allocation is tiny so I’d probably struggle to get a ticket anyway.
But what’s for sure is that after this trip I’ve got my taste for European aways back again. It’s been too long – February 2009 to be precise, Real Madrid 0 Liverpool 1. Yossi’s header and our lot losing their shit at the Bernabeu. My eyes have seen the glory, my friend.
It really hit me on Tuesday how lucky we are being Liverpool fans. We get to do these trips, ones followers of loads of other clubs can only dream about, and they exist not in isolation but as part of a tapestry of tales dating back to Shanks and through all those wins in all those cities, towns and ports. Young Reds stand with older Reds who have been there and done it, and this story is getting passed down. It may not be as glorious, as epic, as it once was, but it’s still something special. Liverpool in Europe. The original adventure.
And so it’s goodbye to Moscow. Thanks for the hospitality and sorry for thinking you lot were going to kill me on sight. Stereotypes are shit, aren’t they? Or maybe you’re just on your best behaviour because the World Cup is coming to town next year. Whatever the case, thanks, I had an ace time. Met new people, sang the same songs, saw the Reds do what the Reds do – play really, really good football. Which is not to be sniffed at, despite the results.
We’ll win again on European soil, no doubt – it’s what we do. But that’s for another time. Right now, it’s time for bed. I’m fucked. Happy, but fucked.