Russia’s capital and Europe’s largest city, Moscow has a long footballing heritage.
The game arrived here in the late 1880s thanks to the mill-owning Charnock brothers from Blackburn, who brought over leather balls and, of course, blue-and-white shirts. A century later, Moscow would witness Blackburn players Graeme Le Saux and David Batty engaging in less than fraternal activities during a fractious European tie.
Back in the USSR, the switch to Communism pushed Moscow ahead of St Petersburg, where the game first took root. From its inauguration in 1936 to 1991, in 54 seasons of the Soviet championship, the title went to Moscow 33 times. Apart from wins by clubs from other republics, mainly Ukrainian, only once did a non-Muscovite Russian club triumph: Zenit Leningrad (today St Petersburg) in 1984.
In more recent times, Moscow has had to share domestic prominence with St Petersburg. In 2016-17 and 2017-18, the pendulum swung back the other way, first when populist club Spartak won the title after a 16-year wait, then when Lokomotiv narrowly beat CSKA to the league crown. These traditional outfits, formed in the early Soviet era, gave Moscow a 1-2-3 on the league podium in 2018. Each also now has their own stadium, after far too many years of groundshares and unsatisfying longer-than-short-term arrangements.
Spartak play at the new-build Otkrytiye Arena, venue for the Confederations Cup in 2017 and five games for the 2018 World Cup finals. The final was staged at the prestigious national stadium, the Luzhniki, rebuilt and reopened in November 2017.
When Russia was awarded hosting of the 2018 World Cup in 2010, there was never any question where the final – and, indeed, the curtain-raiser starring the hosts themselves – would take place.
For a start, the Luzhniki is the only one of the 12 World Cup stadiums with a capacity of 80,000-plus. Secondly, the Luzhniki has been the national stadium ever since its unveiling in 1956. The nation in question, of course, has since changed from the USSR to Russia but, with the statue of Vladimir Ilyich still prominent outside, the former Lenin Central Stadium still feels very much Soviet. This was once a place of mass gymnastics and Spartakiads.
It was also, for many years, the home ground of once rootless Spartak. Here, city rivalries link back to old Communist allegiances, and offer an interesting historic dimension to an afternoon’s football. Moscow’s traditional clubs were formed in the 1920s, at the onset of the Soviet era. Dynamo, very much the fourth of Moscow’s four clubs in the current top flight, were connected with the Ministry of the Interior, with darker ties to the KGB. Based out of town at the suburban Arena Khimki while their own VTB Arena was being built, Dynamo then bounced back from the ignominy of relegation by winning the Russian Football National League in 2017. After several false starts, the VTB Arena was eventually unveiled at the very end of the 2018-19 campaign, on the same site as the old Dynamo stadium, beside the Dynamo metro station.
CSKA represented the Red Army, Lokomotiv the railway workers, and Torpedo the car industry. Torpedo’s traditional home, the Streltsov Stadium, has been refurbished and, sponsored by the Credit Bank of Moscow, the club is on the up. Promotion from the third tier in 2019 may lead to a consecutive leap up to the top flight, if early form in 2019-20 is anything to go by. The club also managed to vacate Spartak’s training ground, the home of reserve side Spartak II, a regular Moscow representative in the second flight.
The very fact that Spartak weren’t linked to any powerful state institution made them almost universally popular. This allowed the people’s club to adapt the quickest to the free-market economy after 1991.
As for the original team formed by the mill-owning Charnock brothers from Blackburn, its fate reflects the upheavals and revolutions of Russia itself. The Orekhovo Sports Club was based at what is today Orekhovo-Zuyevo, 85km east of Moscow. Also known as Morozovtsi, the club had loose historical links with Dynamo Moscow, who also play in white and blue. In Soviet times, Orekhovo became Znamya Truda (‘Banner of Labour’), and even made the Soviet Cup final in 1962. After 1991, they became a nursery club for Spartak. A decade later, they reverted back to their old name. Znamya Truda were then relegated from the West division of the third flight in 2018.
Another Moscow club worthy of note is Saturn Ramenskoye, in the third flight. Saturn gained prominence in the early 2000s with promotion to the top division after the construction of a modern, purpose-built football arena in 1999. The Saturn stadium twice saw Russia’s top team crowned at the end of the season, Zenit in 2007 and Rubin in 2008. In 2011, Saturn went bankrupt and dropped out of the Premier League. A new club was formed, playing in the amateur leagues as Saturn-2.
In 2014, were once again called Saturn, aka ‘The Aliens’ and in 2017, returned to the third-tier Russian Professional Football League. The stadium holds 16,500, accessed by a regular train from Moscow’s Kazansky Station (Komsomolskaya metro) to Ramenskoye, about an hour away.
Finally, for a real taste of Soviet-era Moscow, the Izmailovo Stadium is the home ground of fourth-flight Sportakademklub. It’s also a slice of history. Under its initial name of the Stalin Stadium, it was to be the national stadium of the USSR before World War II intervened and focus moved to the Luzhniki. While the stadium wasn’t properly completed until 60 years later, the network of tunnels that were to accommodate Stalin and his generals remain immediately below. The stadium is still part of a military museum complex, hence the Soviet fighter plane in the main stand. You’ll find it at ulitsa Sovietskaya 80, on the other side of main Shchelkovskoye Shosse from Lokomotiv and Cherkizovskaya metro station in north-east Moscow.
To enter Russia you need a visa, for which you also need at least one night pre-booked at a hotel.
Moscow has three international airports. All are served by Aeroexpress trains (500r/£6 online or from machines, cards accepted. It’s 560r/£6.70 including one onward journey by public transport. For the World Cup 2018, those carrying Fan ID may ride for free.
From Domodyedovo, 42km (26 miles) south of the city centre,half-hourly trains run to Paveletskaya station (45min). Use exit 3 at the air-rail complex, in between domestic and international arrivals. From Sheremyetevo, 29km (18 miles) north-west of town, they run every half-hour from terminals D-F to Belorusskaya station (40min). From terminals B & D at Vnukovo, 28km (17.5 miles) south-west of town, trains run hourly to Kievskaya station (35min).
Each of these destinations is conveniently located on the circle line of Moscow’s ornate, cheap and efficient metro. Tokens are sold at electronic kiosks for one ticket (55r/£0.65) and from windows for multi-journey passes, including 24hr (210r/£2.50). A 90-minute ticket (£0.78) allows you to use the metro then a bus, trolleybus or tram, which are otherwise 50r/£0.60 per journey, pay on board.
Machines and windows also dispense Troika top-up smart-card passes (50r/£0.60) for cheaper, easier journeys.
Plan your journey with Moscow Transport. The Luzhniki south of the city centre has its own stop on new circle line 14, with Sportivnaya on line 1 also close. The new Spartak metro station by the Otkrytiye Arena is on line 7, north-west of town.
Mostaxi (+7 495 540 4040) has fixed rates for airport transfers, around 1,000r/£12-1,500r/£18 depending on type of car and city destination/set-off point. Across town, a minimum price is 200r/£2.40-350r/£4.20 in a standard car.
Moscow has no tourist office – try Moscow Info.
Hotels fall into the diverse categories of silly expensive and dangerously cheap, with little in between. During the league season, a visiting big-name team will probably stay at the high-end Four Seasons, the Ritz-Carlton, Metropol or National, all within walking distance of Red Square. Lenin was a guest at the latter two, hence the plaques.
More affordable, with advance booking, are the Moscow Marriott Grand near Mayakovskaya metro and the Radisson Royal on Kutuzovsky prospekt, set in the classic Ukraina building, a Stalinist skyscraper almost designed for King Kong to scramble up.
A perennial affordable option is the four-building Izmailovskaya complex built for the 1980 Olympics. With rooms from 2,500r/£30 a night, the Delta-Gamma section is a safe and competitive, near a vast flea market offering team scarves and shirts. Though way north-east of town, nearby Izmailovo metro station is now on the No.14 line, the same as the Luzhniki.
Cheap hotels are best avoided. Filling the gap are hostels such as Godzillas at central Bolshoy Karetny 6 with singles and twins around 2,500r/£30 per person, though at least twice this price during the World Cup. Set amid the skyscrapers of Moscow’s fledgling financial district, the High Level Hostel (Presnenskaya naberezhnaya 6) opened in 2014. Though on a spur of metro line 4 rather than a main route, it still has dorm beds at 3,000r/£35.60 for the second half of the World Cup. Rates are usually 1,700r/£20.
If you’re drinking in the bar hub around Chekhovskaya metro, then Mini, formerly Oasis, at Strastnoy bulvar 4, is handy if modest, and in a small hub of similar hostels.
With the Luzhniki back in full swing, the newly opened hotel of the same name, provides convenient mid-to-upper-range lodging overlooking the river – though availability during the World Cup is practically zero. Close to Sportivnaya metro at ulitsa 10-Letiya Oktyabrya 11, the 147-room Gostinitsa Arena has a spa and café, plus affordable availability on many World Cup days. The nearby 24-room Blues Hotel at Dovatora 8 is in a quieter location also within easy reach of Sportivnaya. The Yunost has been serving the Luzhniki since 1961, hosting the likes of Yuri Gagarin, Mikhail Gorbachëv and any number of famous footballers. Still very Soviet, it has a pool, sauna and gym. With 200-plus rooms, it may have availability during the World Cup but you need to email (email@example.com) or call ahead (+7 499 242 0091).
There is no lodging around the Otkryitiye Arena – and you’d be way out of town anyway – but accommodation around the new CSKA stadium is reasonably handy for metro line 7 and closer to town. This includes the four-star Art Hotel Moscow (‘Art ’Otel’ to Russians), where German expertise has been put to good use in creating a sauna, gym, restaurant and conference facilities. Its 24-hour lobby bar doubles up as a pre- and post-match hangout for CSKA games. It’s also close-ish to line 14 for the Luzhniki.
The city’s official fan zone extends outside Moscow State University (‘MGU’) on match days, overlooking the Luzhniki. Reasonably close is Universitet metro on the same metro line 1 as Sportivnaya.
Around the city, sport-focused pubs and bars abound.
Of the Brit- and Irish-type venues, Bobby Dazzler (Kostyanskiy pereulok 7/13, Turgenevskaya/Chistiye prudy metro) is home to the Moscow Reds – note the flag signed by ex-United star Andrei Kanchelskis. Beers include Fuller’s, Shepherd Neame, Marston’s and Belhaven. At weekends, it’s tables by reservation only.
The four branches of local pub chain John Dunne all show scheduled TV football, including the most central one near Arbatskaya metro at Nikitsky boulevard 12, the first outlet to open a decade ago. Seven large screens complement 15 types of draught beer, ale and porters..
Union Jack has three outlets, the two most central being at Nizhny Kiselny pereulok 3 near Trubnaya metro and ulitsa Maroseyska 13 near Kitay-gorod metro.
The more contemporary One More Pub mini-chain attracts a business crowd during the week and a sporting one at weekends, with its local craft brews, draught-beer offers and wide range of TV games. You’ll find the main branch in the business centre at Butyrskiy val 5, near Belorussky station, halfway between the city centre and Dinamo stadium.
Closer to Red Square at Bolshoy Cherkasskiy pereulok 15, Old School Pub is neither old-school nor a real pub, but is a handy find for football watching, partly because of its round-the-clock opening, partly because of its plethora of screens.
The former Radio City sports bar in the Hotel Peking building, at Bolshaya Sadovaya 5 near Mayakovsky metro, still contains vast banks of TV screens tuned to football, along with 29 types of beer, but pan-Asian cuisine has come with a name change to Bar2545.
The popular Liga Pap is still very much a major TV football hangout, still has a vast screen and is still a 24-hour operation – the only difference is that a new branch at Krasnoproletarskaya 16 has opened to partner the original venue at Bolshaya Lubyanka 24, where the party can spill out the street for major tournaments.
Once uniquely trendy Vsye tvoi druzya (‘All Your Friends’) stood out for its craft beers, shabby-chic décor and detached affection for football – now this spot at Maly Gnezdnikovskiy pereulok 12/27 has been joined by several new competitors just the other side of Tverskaya.
This includes contemporary beer-and-burger joint Get Jerry (Strastnoy bulvar 4), with a big screen, a decent range of lagers, and, rare for Russia, cider. Here you’ll also find a branch of Harat’s, the sport-focused pub with scores of outlets across the former Soviet Union.