February 2013 and the Europa League knock-out stages draw pitted my beloved Liverpool with a tricky tie against Zenit St Petersburg from Russia.
With a back drop of racism and violence we decided to take the ‘risk’ and book the trip. When would we ever have a chance to visit Russia again we thought. It’s not as if it was on the radar for a romantic weekend away with the wife, even though love was indeed in the air that night with it being Valentine’s Day.
Our flights were quickly booked; Out from Manchester, through Stockholm for a night (stopping in a former plane, now hotel, near the runway) and on to St Petersburg the following morning. Homebound was back through Copenhagen the day after the game. The credit card took another whack with the news that you needed a visa to enter the former USSR capital, which at £115 a pop for what amounted to just over 24 hours on red soil.
To Russia with(out) love
The day of our flight out and the North West of England feels more like Siberia than Russia will. Heavy snow, plummeting temperatures and a driving wind give us a feel for the days ahead. The only worry being if our flight will depart on time.
Nice night with a few beers in Stockholm and a 9.30am flight to St Petersburg, a three-hour time difference to Sweden awaited us. It was a smooth flight to a very cold Russia and we landed on time.
The idea was to get a taxi from the airport but after haggling for a few minutes with the Russian ‘spiv’ at the taxi rank who wanted to charge us 2500 RUB (£50-ish), he was told what to do in no uncertain terms. The problem with Pulkovo Airport is that there is no direct transfer by train or bus. It was a short bus journey to the metro and then a train into the city.
We got on the bus and virtually had no idea where we were going. A kind Russian businessman offered his help in quite good English, so we took up his offer of assistance. It was a risk. Don’t trust anyone I was told, they’ll all try to rip you off but this guy was brilliant. Took us all the way on the metro to the stop near to the hotel.
Cold war brewing
The thing with Russian is that I can’t either understand a word they say and I can’t understand one word to read. In other countries we’ve visited I can grasp a few words and read a few more but Russian is virtually impossible.
It was now the afternoon of the game, so we checked into the hotel and handed over more roubles for the privilege of registering us into the country. Everything was filling forms in, maybe a lean back towards the country’s paranoid past with the west.
A nice bar was next to the hotel on the famous Nevsky Prospekt, so a few pre-match drinks were downed. It was Valentine’s Day, so the local couples were sharing a romantic candle lit dinner as we cast our minds towards the game.
A taxi was ordered to take us to the ground between the four of us, which arrived on time. It was a 20-minute journey through the crazy St Petersburg traffic to reach the Petrovsky Stadium, now former home of Zenit. We were greeted with line after line of riot police which gave us a comfort factor as we walked towards the ground in freezing and quickly dipping temperatures.
The ground was on an island, so was surrounded by water. With temperatures dropping towards -15 deg C, all the water was frozen completely solid. A local was telling me that fans sometimes walked across the frozen water to and from the ground but I gave that a miss. I’d sooner walk across the concrete bridge than risk hyperthermia in the killer water temperatures.
Freezing our hot dogs off
About three body searches later and we were in the concourse surrounding the very basic ground. A quick look inside the club shop and then off to get some food. The ground was a million miles away from the comfort of the English Premier League. If you loved corn on the cob you’d be happy because every other stall was selling this. The other food was a hot-dog type concoction along with a decent cup of coffee to keep the shivers at bay for a while.
Onto the concrete terracing, with no roof and the temperatures continued to drop as the ground filled up to almost capacity, with around 350 Liverpool fans and a mixture of travelling fans from England and Eastern European. The concrete terracing was similar to many stands I stood up during the 1980’s.
We were warned about Zenit being the ‘most racist club in Europe’ but we never seen or heard any gestures towards any of the black Liverpool players. Violence after the game was a different matter however.
On a very poor pitch, probably damaged by the Baltic weather, Liverpool came away with a disappointing 2-0 defeat. The Zenit big money signing Hulk repaid a part of his fee by knocking in a stunning 25-yard drive into the top corner and within a few minutes the home side took a 2-0 lead after Liverpool failed to clear.
Russian crazy boys
The Zenit fans inside the ground were a credit to their club. Noisy and passionate, it was an experience to witness. The sight of hundreds of Russian lads removing their shirts after they scored their second was a sight to make you rub your eyes. This was in temperatures of -15 deg C don’t forget. A huge banner depicting ‘The Charge of Light Brigade’ was unfurled being the game, with impressive graphics.
A huge riot police escort took us to the closest metro station and then suddenly left us to our own devices. We got the metro a few stops down towards our hotel but the lads who got off at the closer metro stop were ambushed by the hooligan element of Zenit and a few Liverpool fans, heavily outnumbered, took a beating.
By luck, we arrived back to our hotel and due to safety fears, we stayed there and had a few beers to wind down the moody night.
Now the club Zenit will rightly praise themselves for the crowd operation around the ground with probably no arrests and no sign of violence but the scenes described to me by fellow Liverpool fans on the metro was a throwback to the 70’s and 80’s over here in England. Bottles and knuckle dusters were the choice of weapons.
I don’t want to paint all Zenit fans in a bad light of course. The majority treated us very well and were quite welcoming. However, the hooligan minority is what we were all talking about on the way home.
The morning after the game gave us a few hours to explore the beautiful sites of the city before a taxi to the airport and a flight to Copenhagen, and then on to Manchester.
We’d been to four countries and used five currencies in a little over two days. We arrived home cold and tired but still with enough energy left to round the trip off with a last few pints in the local.
Russia was a fantastic experience but the violence overshadowed this a little. The World Cup comes to this country in a few months, I just hope any visitors come home safe and sound.