With a new stadium, a Russian title won on the last game of 2015-16 and five consecutive seasons in the Champions League group stage, these are exciting times for CSKA Moscow.
No longer are fans trekking out to Khimki, the dormitory suburb north of the capital where their club was exiled while the CSKA Arena was being built over the best part of a decade. Although not ready to host the curtain-raising Super Cup game against Zenit – a 1-0 defeat that prefaced an otherwise promising start to the 2016-17 campaign – the CSKA Arena represents another step towards a 21st-century soccer infrastructure in Moscow. With Spartak having opened their new stadium and the national stadium getting ready for the 2018 World Cup, it just leaves Dynamo to unveil their VTB Arena in 2018.
But none of these stadia have the one feature CSKA’s has: a twisting tower fashioned in the shape of the former UEFA Cup, won by the club in 2005, Russia’s first European trophy.
The Centralny Sportivny Klub Armeya, known by the local acronym of ‘Tsey-Es-Kah’, grew out of the Ministry of Defence but the club has its origins in pre-Soviet times. A foundation date of 1911 makes it one of the oldest in Russia.
After the Revolution and Civil War, the military sports society was renamed the ‘Experimental and Demonstration Playing Field of the Military Education Assocation’ in 1923 – the club’s official birthdate. The slightly less cumbersome ‘Sports Club of the Central House of the Red Army’, SC CDKA, was adopted in 1927. Similar acronyms were used throughout the club’s Soviet history, which effectively started in tandem with the league in 1936.
In ice hockey and basketball, CSKA reigned supreme. The club could conscript the brightest talent, offering them a stark choice between freezing on a remote frontier or playing their sport in Moscow. But in football, by accident or design, Soviet-era CSKA played second fiddle to Spartak and Dynamo – a doughty opponent but rarely a champion.
It may not have been by accident. The Ministry of Defence was keen to see the hammer and sickle flutter proudly over medal ceremonies in a huge range of sports. Failure was unthinkable. CSKA (then known as CDSA, ‘Central House of the Soviet Army’) were obliged to curtail their defence of the 1951 title, with key players competing for a vital first football gold for the USSR at the Olympics the following summer. CDSA suffered most from the outfall of the 3-1 defeat to non-aligned Yugoslavia, one not reported in the Soviet press until after Stalin’s death. The Army side simply disappeared from the Soviet League until 1954.
The Army side notched a rare title win in 1970, led by loyal one-club captain Albert Shesternëv. Another, final, Soviet title was achieved more dramatically in 1991. That June, young goalkeeper Mikhail Yeremin was killed in a car crash after CSKA’s cup win that day – his place was taken by later Chelsea star Dimitry Kharin. By the time CSKA won the league, the USSR was about to collapse.
After a fallow decade, CSKA’s luck changed when club president Evgeny Giner embarked on a spending spree that shifted the balance of power away from Spartak. ‘Giner kupil vsyo’ (‘Giner bought everything’) was a popular chant after any strange refereeing decision. CSKA-Spartak became the defining Russian rivalry, outstripping the old Spartak-Dynamo one.
Giner brought in former Dynamo striker Valery Gazzayev as coach in 2001. He led CSKA to the cup in 2002, then the league a year later, their first silverware since 1991.
A further injection of cash came in 2004, with sponsorship from Roman Abramovich’s Sibneft.
In came prolific Brazilian striker Vagner Love, almost adopting the romantic swagger of CSKA’s pre-match mascot horse (the club’s nickname is kony, ‘the horses’, after the hippodrome their stadium was built on). The improbable sight of a baby-faced Brazilian forward, corn-rowed hair in CSKA red and blue, leading the attack offered a stark contrast with the fans later locked out of European games for racist chanting.
But Love ruled supreme. In 2005, along with talismanic midfielder Yuri Zhirkov and Croatian winger Ivica Olic, CSKA surprised everyone by beating Sporting Lisbon at their own stadium to win the UEFA Cup. It was Russia’s first European trophy.
Despite two more domestic titles, further European success eluded CSKA. Sibneft withdrew, then Gazzayev left for Kiev.
The moment seemed to have gone. But, after short managerial stints from Zico and Juande Ramos, the club kept faith with a young Leonid Slutsky. Mercurial performances by young, Beslan-born attacking midfielder Alan Dzagoyev helped CSKA take consecutive titles in 2013 and 2014, with goalkeeper Igor Akinfeyev a near ever-present.
Both played a vital role in CSKA’s title win of 2015-16, decided on the last game. Dzagoyev’s injury in the 1-0 victory over Rubin Kazan kept him out of Russia’s dismal showing at Euro 2016. In the aftermath, coach Leonid Slutsky, he of the ponderous back four, lost the national post, put his focus on his regular job at CSKA but soon fell behind to a rampant Spartak.
With Ahmed Musa, top scorer in 2015-16, sold to Leicester, Slutsky always had his work cut out in any case. After his unexpected move to Hull, former CSKA assistant coach Viktor Goncharenko stepped in, Russian prodigy Aleksandr Golovin still a prominent weapon in the club’s bid to win back the league title.
In Europe, results in the group stages of the Champions League have included wins over Manchester City, PSV Eindhoven and Benfica, with a run to the quarter-finals of the Europa League in 2018.
Around the old Khodynka airfield, off Leningradskoye Shosse between Dynamo and Aeroport metro stations, are swathes of land and sports facilities belonging to the Ministry of Defence. Arenas for ice hockey (with a Putin portrait in the lobby) and basketball complement a pool and gymnastics hall, as well as the huge indoor athletics complex built in brutalist concrete for the 1980 Olympics. A general army HQ is set, if not quite seen, deep in a huge garden that fronts onto the main road.
Until August 2016, football had been somewhat forgotten. The old CSKA stadium, just to the north of the other venues, had been a makeshift affair seating 10,000 in two uncovered stands.
Moneyed club president Giner decided that this was inadequate and duly closed it down in 2000, leading to CSKA’s long, peripatetic existence playing games at the old Dynamo stadium, the vast Luzhniki and, from 2010 to 2016, Arena Khimki.
The exile wasn’t intended to last so long. The plan was to rebuild on the original site and create a modern arena. The land was there, the club had the money and Lokomotiv had already demonstrated how a stadium could be built in Moscow without a running track or neo-classical colonnades.
One of the little-noticed consequences of the collapse of the USSR was the reformation of the various CSKA teams as independent professional sports clubs rather than recognised regiments of the army. In practice, with the MoD retaining a sizeable shareholding, this seemed to make little difference, beyond foreign players not having to enlist. But the land where the football stadium stood was still owned by the Army, only willing to allow it to be used for a sports arena. CSKA wanted their new 30,000-seater stadium to include leisure and retail facilities and, three years after work on the site began in 2007, the military said nyet to the proposals and launched a court case.
The civil war ended the day before the two sides were due to go before a judge in March 2010; the Army laid down its weapons following behind-closed-doors negotiations between Giner and then Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov. The stadium was slated to open in 2013, then again for the 2016-17 Super Cup.
In the end, CSKA played the first five league games of 2016-17 away before unveiling the $350-million stadium.
Set in a corner of proyezd Berëzovoi Roshchi and 3-ya Peschanaya ulitsa, by the four-star Art Hotel (and its 24-hour lobby bar), the stadium comprises four stands, each bearing a letter of the club’s acronym, anglicised to CSKA. Press and VIPs are housed in Tribuna K, away fans in sectors 215-216 and 515-516 of Tribuna S, accessed through the Yuzhnaya Vkhodnaya Gruppa (South Entrance) from Berëzovoi Roshchi. There are towers in each corner, with a VIP bar in each: the away sectors are directly below the Golden Tower (Zolotaya Bashnya) with its 2005 Bar, both fashioned in tribute to CSKA’s UEFA Cup win.
Despite the long stand-off, CSKA still takes its army heritage seriously. Their official anthem is the stirring Soviet march ‘The Red Army is the Strongest of All’ and their equine mascot evokes the romance of the cavalry swashbuckling their way into battle.
CSKA’s rivalry with Spartak is played up as a Russian clásico and TV trailers display optimistic parallels with Barça and Real by strumming flamenco in the background and intercutting scenes from a bullfight. It’s something of a rivalry of convenience, though: fans with longer memories still see Spartak and Dynamo as the natural foes and lament the fake frenzy around CSKA. TV’s new ‘Superderby’ is now the hottest ticket in Russian football, generating the biggest police presence in Moscow apart from an opposition rally. After the game, it can be a long wait while the stadium is emptied block by block to reduce the risk of crowd trouble.
CSKA and Dynamo fans rub along fairly well, united by a historic connection with the uniformed services and a mutual distaste for Spartak. It’s not uncommon to see CSKA scarves at Dynamo games and vice versa, especially in European competition. Derby meetings lack the intensity of those with Spartak. As other Moscow sides, CSKA fans loathe Zenit. With the footballing landscape shifting, however, this fixture is becoming the biggest in the Premier League calendar.
The club is promising to build a metro station (as Spartak have done) closer to the stadium.
For the time being, you have a choice of two stations, each about 1.5-2km away from the arena or a 20-25min walk, allowing for crossing main roads. On purple line 7, Polezhayevskaya (four stops from central Pushkinskaya) is probably the closest, and brings you out before the south end of Berëzovaya Roshcha Park. From there, stride along ulitsa Kuusinena alongside the park and bear right at the end. Regular bus Nos.64 and 318, and trolleybus Nos.43 and 65 trundle the same journey from the metro station, five stops to Peschanaya ploshad’.
Alternatively, north of the stadium on broad Leningradski prospekt, Sokol (dark green line 2, six stops from central Teatral’naya) is about 200 metres from Novopeschanaya ulitsa that leads to the stadium – there’s a Post Office at the right turning, just past No.71 Leningradski prospekt. The first bus stop you come to on Novopeschanaya (right-hand side) is ploshad’ Marini Raskovoj, from where bus Nos.175 and 597, and trolley Nos.6, 43 and 86, run along Novopeschanaya as far as 2-ya Peschanaya (four stops) – it’s another 7-10min to reach the stadium on foot from there, continuing in the same direction.
With a 30,000 capacity and interest running high for 2016-17, availability for Russian league games will be limited.
The main ticket office (Mon-Fri 9am-9pm, Sat-Sun 11am-6pm) is at 2A 3-ya Peschanaya ulitsa by the North entrance to the stadium. Tickets usually go on sale two days before the match. Away fans have their own ticket office by the South entrance on proyezd Berëzovoi Roshchi, tickets on sale from 2hrs before kick-off.
For the time being, there are no online sales nor credit-card payments in person. Note also that tickets for Champions League games in 2016-17 are available to season-ticket holders only – and away fans through their own clubs.
For league matches, prices are 700r/$11 behind the goals (Tribuna S), including for away fans, running to 1,200r-2,200r ($18.50/$34) in the lower and upper tiers of the sideline Tribuna C and K. Tribuna A is the home end.
The club’s main shop (daily 10am-8pm) is now by the ticket office at 2A 3-ya Peschanaya ulitsa by the North entrance to the stadium. There’s another outlet (daily 10am-8pm) nearby at Leningradsky prospekt 37B (first floor, outlet 176) at the Start shopping centre.
There’s also a small outlet in town at Zemylaynoi Val 8 (daily 10am-9pm), a few blocks north of Kurskaya station.
Each has a standard selection of scarves, shirts and souvenirs – many foreign fans will be after the T-shirts that bear five-pointed star badges.
There’s a bar on each corner of the stadium but each is VIP-only. For the time being there’s no other major bar or café at the stadium though that may change when a club museum is installed at some point in the future.
In terms of bars or restaurants around the stadium, the CSKA Arena is set in parkland – there’s a bar at the nearby Art Hotel though would probably be happier serving two or three customers at a time rather than hordes of football fans.
One alternative is the 7 Element Café at Novopeschnaya 10, near the World War I monument in Leningradsky Park. You could easily walk past it without realising it’s there, but you’d miss a fine beer garden and that strange Russian speciality, low-alcohol kvass on tap.
Another option is the Karl Balling, a somewhat elegant restaurant at proyezd Berëzovoi Roshchi, about 400 metres from the south side of the stadium, ie the away end. All carved wood and stained-glass windows, it also houses a standard bar counter with a great big beertap on top of it. Plasma-screen TVs have also been set up for sport viewing. Balling himself was a Central-European scientist who worked out how to measure the alcohol content of beer.