A city closed to outsiders for half a century until 1990, Nizhny Novgorod has little experience of international football. Here sport meant ice hockey, athletics and that bizarre winter hybrid of bandy. The leading football club in town, Olimpiyets, date back to 2015.
Owned by the City of Nizhny Novgorod, Olimpiyets maintained a presence in the second-flight FNL in 2017-18, thanks to a late run – one that coincided with a move into the city’s new arena built for the 2018 World Cup.
With a majestic location overlooking the wide-flowing Volga, with the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral alongside, the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium would not feel out of place in St Petersburg. Here England take on Panama, Argentina play Croatia and a semi-final berth will be decided, possibly involving Spain, France or Portugal.
Until the arrival of Messi, Modrić and Kane, the last World Cup star to grace Nizhny Novgorod was Slava Metreveli. Semi-finalist in 1966, with a scoring role when the USSR won the first European Championship in 1960, Metreveli played for two seasons for local club Torpedo here in 1955 before moving to its more famous namesake in Moscow.
Metreveli’s alma mater was Torpedo Gorky. Today’s Nizhny Novgorod, ‘Nizhny’ to locals, was known as Gorky during the Soviet era, after Stalin’s favourite writer who was born here. Records show – and this being the kind of city where street maps were banned until the 1970s, records are hazy at best – that Torpedo Gorky played in the Soviet top flight in 1951 and 1954, finishing bottom each time.
In 1963, Torpedo merged with Raketa to create FK Volga, whose solitary season in the Soviet first league came a year later. In 1984, the club was forced to disband for reasons unknown. The Cold War was at its height and across town, exiled Nobel laureate physicist Andrei Sakharov had just started his hunger strike. Gorky was not closed to Soviet citizens – but it was easier for the authorities to marshal boatloads of Volga tourists around town than random visiting football fans.
The club formed in the 1990s, also FK Volga, are related to their predecessors in name only. Based at the Lokomotiv Stadium, near the Gorky monument on the same side of the river as the World Cup arena, FK Volga slowly rose up the Russian league pyramid until gaining promotion from the second tier in 2010.
One place below them that year were FK Nizhny Novgorod, whose short existence ended in 2012 when they merged with FK Volga.
The only other local club worthy of note was Lokomotiv, who made the Soviet top flight in 1989, and enjoyed five creditable campaigns in the Russian top flight. Relegation in 1997 coincided with a short run in the InterToto Cup, and a rare chance for local supporters to see foreign teams in the flesh.
The Railwaymen lost their professional status in 2006. An amateur team still runs out in the local leagues. Despite its red-and-white colour scheme, the Lokomotiv Stadium proved a happy hunting ground for FK Volga, who played three top-flight campaigns here until 2014.
Debts and double-relegation not only saw FK Volga fold, but be usurped by its nursery team, FK Volga-Olimpiyets. These young upstarts took over the Lokomotiv Stadium, grabbed that vacant spot in the third flight and went up. Even now, the club website gives the official home ground as ‘Lokomotiv’ – though the crucial late-goal win over Luch Vladivostok in May 2018 took place before a crowd of 42,000 at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium.
The most notable aspect of the game, apart from the fact it relegated Vladivostok and made away days a whole lot easier for FNL clubs in 2018-19, is that it must represent the largest ever attendance at a local football match.
Once the World Cup circus vacates the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, a middling second-league team with little pedigree would be attracting crowds one-tenth of its 45,000 capacity.
Creating a solid, substantial base of local football supporters may prove more tortuous than the three years it took to build the stadium itself.
Strigino Airport, aka Nizhny Novgorod International, is 14km (8.5 miles) south-west of the city centre. The nearest stop on the Nizhny Novgorod metro line, Park Kultury (Парк культуры), is only 3km away. A taxi journey there should only be about 150r/£1.80 but drivers may baulk at the short distance – certainly, when coming back to the airport, Park Kultury+taxi is an easy, cheap option.
A firm such as Taxi 555 (+7 831 2 555 000) should charge about 500r/£6 to/from main Moscow train station, Moskovsky vokzal (Московский вокзал), 1.5km from the stadium on the same side of the river, about 700r/£8.50 to the stadium and 800-900r/£9.70-£11 to the city centre.
Public transport from the airport, bus Nos.11 and 20, communal minibus Nos. 29 and 46 (for all, pay 20r/£0.24 on board) runs to ploshchad Kiselev (Площадь Киселева), next to Park Kultury metro station – but not to the city centre or the stadium. From Park Kultury, the metro (tokens 28r/£0.34) runs to Moscow train station and Gorkovskaya (Горьковская) towards the city centre across the river. From the station, tram 1 (pay 20r/£0.24 on board) goes closer to the centre, served by the stops of Ulitsa Dobrolyubova (Улица Добролюбова) and Cherny prud (черный пруд).
As its name suggests, the station serves the many trains from the capital, journey time between 3hr 45min and 6hr 30min.
At press time, there were no direct metro or tram links to the stadium, the nearest transport hub being Moscow train station. Cars (but not trams) can cross nearby Kanavinsky Bridge, so a taxi is your best bet. It’s only about 3-4km from the centre.
There is no decent official online tourist information for Nizhny Novgorod.
Close to the stadium and right next to the cathedral, historic Nikitin at Strelka 13 currently has no availability during the World Cup, unless rooms become free with teams dropping out for the knock-out stage. Built in the 1890s by a famous architect of the same name, it has 21 rooms and an elegant café. Also very near, the Hotel Titul (ulitsa Kerchenskaya 14A) opened as a small hotel in 2014 and may still have rooms in June – contact firstname.lastname@example.org or +7 831 1 777 999.
A short walk away, by the river at Sovetskaya 12, standard four-star Marins Park Hotel (+7 495 139 1054) should still have rooms available (16,700r/£200) on certain days during the World Cup.
Nearer to Moscow train station, the Bugrov Hostel (ulitsa Sovetskaya 20) is a cheap option of budget rooms and small dorms.
On the city centre side of the water, the 220-room ibis at ulitsa Maxima Gorkovo 115 offers reliable mid-range comfort near the metro terminus of Gorkovskaya. At press-time there was limited availability in early July.
Another major chain, the upper mid-range Sheraton, stands right by the Kremlin in the historic centre at Ploshchad’ Teatralnaya 1. Rates for certain nights in June are around 9,000r/£110 per room. Right by the Kremlin wall, the unpromisingly named Hotel Rest Home (Bolshaya Pokrovskaya 7/10) contains a handful of gloomy rooms in the 7,500r/£90 range on certain nights during the World Cup.
Also by the Kremlin, the mid-range Hotel Joy is a suitably happy find at at ulitsa Oktyabrskaya 4, with availability in June but a minimum three-night stay.
Rather joyless, but convenient for the city centre, the Akvarel (ulitsa Timiryazeva 3B). Rooms out of World Cup season start at 3,000r/£36 – in June, they’ll be at a premium.
Alongside the Kremlin, the pedestrianised street of Minin & Pozharsky is where you’ll find the city’s Fan Zone for 2018.
As for bars, several line Rozhdestvenskaya ulitsa, parallel to the river. Here at No.8, the Union Jack offers TV football, live music, and British and European beers on draught. Round the corner at No.19, the Black Pearl Pub is more of a DJ bar but has a TV for games. Kabanchik at No.18 is one of three in town, pubs for serious beer guzzlers, carnivores and football gawpers, with a weekly schedule posted up. The other two venues are at Maxima Gorkovo 80/1 and outside Moscow train station at Lunarcharskogo 25.
At Rozhdestvenskaya 1, Expeditsia is a curiosity, a restaurant that specialises in food from Siberia and the Arctic, also with a terrace overlooking the Volga, live music and TV sport.
Nizhny Novogorod has a Sports Bar, at Piskunova 40 near Rechnoye uchilische tram stop, more of a restaurant but with a screen as the focus in the dining room.
The other street for dining and drinking is Bolshaya Pokrovskaya south of the city centre, where Hell Yeah (No.27) may not be a bar with football but is every bit a bar with attitude. Plus loud rock and craft beers. At No.35, Druzhkova Kruzhka is a Czech restaurant with the usual hearty staples, quality beers and TV football.
Nearby at ulitsa Zvezdinka 12, the two-floor English Embassy Pub offers a full menu of decent bar food, tons of screens and a whole slew of sought-after ales from Britain and the States. Also a short walk from Gorkovskaya metro, the Union Jack https://unionjack.ru at Maxima Gorkovo 150 is the sister operation to its namesake across town, with live music more to the fore.
The local branch of Harat’s, the chain of sports pubs everywhere in Russia, is at Varvarskaya 32, handy for cheap lunch deals.