Russia’s national stadium was a suitably grandiose arena for the 2018 World Cup Final, opening game, second semi-final and four other matches.
Sprawling over a tongue of land tucked in a bend of the Moskva river, facing the Sparrow Hills, the Luzhniki was designed for huge communal Soviet events. The first, the sports Spartakiad of 1956, attracted 34,000… athletes. Eleven of them, including legendary goalkeeper Lev Yashin and fellow internationals, starred for a Moscow team who beat Georgia in the final of the football tournament.
A month later, also before a crowd of 100,000-plus, Hungary had the temerity to beat USSR 1-0, the first full international played here and one of the last times that Ferenc Puskás, József Bozsik and Zoltán Czibor would team up together for the Magic Magyars.
Since then, the stadium has seen four major revamps, the most recent completed in 2017 and costing €350 million.
The first was for the 1980 Olympics – the Luzhniki is now one of only seven stadiums to host both the Games and the World Cup final. The second came in the 1990s, by which time the arena had lost its official title of Central Lenin Stadium and assumed the name everyone called it anyway, Luzhniki, ‘Meadows’. The stadium had acquired a roof and, lowering capacity to below 80,000, individual seating.
Having successfully hosted a European final in 1999, star-studded Parma’s comprehensive 3-0 thumping of Marseille, the Luzhniki welcomed the arrival of Manchester United and Chelsea for the Champions League final of 2008, and John Terry’s fateful slip on the penalty spot. The stadium had also undergone another refit in the meantime, though the marshy surroundings where the Soviets had sited the stadium back in 1955 had changed little. Back then, proximity to the city centre was paramount – and this large expanse of undeveloped land had hosted outdoor sports activities even during the last days of the Tsars.
For much of the modern era, the Luzhniki had also served as a club stadium, mainly for the rootless Spartak Moscow, but also for the lesser lights of Torpedo. It staged speedway, wrestling and rugby, rock concerts and music festivals.
Shortly after the World Athletics Championships in 2013, it closed for the construction of what is effectively a new stadium. The athletics track has been removed, a whole new set of seats installed – 3,000 more than before, increasing capacity to 81,000. The roof has gained an extended visor for added protection, as well as a translucent polycarbonate covering.
For all that, the Luzhniki retains the same shape, the kind of neo-classical bowl favoured by Socialist stadium architects, as when Puskás and his men graced it back in 1956. Even Lenin still stands outside, gazing purposefully at the horizon. Behind him, Tribuna A (colour-coded blue) is the main stand, C (red) the opposite sideline stand, with B (green) and D (orange) behind each goal. Smaller sports halls of all descriptions still surround the main stadium.
On November 11 2017, a black-gloved Lionel Messi led Argentina to a 1-0 win over Russia here to open the newly unveiled Luzhniki. A late strike by Sergio Agüero, whose kick-off had seen 81,000 mobiles spark into action, sealed the victory.
Russia were again the participants for the opening game of the World Cup on June 14, against Saudi Arabia. Messi had long left town by the time the final took place a month later.
The Luzhniki now has its own metro stop on the equally new outer circle line 14. It is slightly closer to the stadium than the traditional gateway, Sportivnaya on red line 1, extended here shortly after the stadium opened in 1956.
Also handy, and on the same line 1, the station Vorobyovy gory allows easiest access to the main pre-match bars and eateries in the vicinity.
On the waterfront at ulitsa Luzhniki 24, 400 metres from Vorobyovy gory metro station, the restaurant Olymp Junior is the classiest pre-match option, with its own enclosed garden, two floors, and a massive terrace. Food is the focus but there’s also a separate wooden bar counter with a huge tap of beer.
Veranda Lounge Café, further round the riverfront where the Soho used to be at Luzhnetskaya naberezhnaya 24, is another restaurant with cosmopolitan pretensions, though dotted with TVs, and offering Spaten beer on draught and Kozel, Heineken and Bavaria by the bottle. A full menu features steak, fish and pastas.