Not to be confused with its namesake town of gleaming medieval churches in the Golden Ring around Moscow, Rostov-on-Don is a city of a million people in Russia’s far south, close to the Sea of Azov and Crimea.
A port and rail hub, Rostov industrialised in the late 1800s but football passed it by, at least in terms of national profile. The current soccer phenomenon is a recent one, previously driven by a maverick manager from Turkmenistan, Kurban Berdyev. The man who put Rubin Kazan on the same footing as the moneyed clubs of Moscow and St Petersburg came to FC Rostov halfway through 2014-15, kept the club up then took the ‘Selmashi’ close to a title in 2015-16.
What followed was all riddles, enigmas and mysteries. Berdyev stepped out, came back to be offered vice-presidency and is now said to be in overall charge of coaching – although his name and permanently baseball-capped profile have been removed from the club website.
What is clear is that the FC Rostov he created have recently walloped Bayern, Ajax and Sparta Prague at their modest ground of the Olimp-2 and made it through to the last 16 of the Europa League.
Meanwhile, the Rostov Arena was taking shape on the southern bank of the Don, over Voroshilovsky Bridge, facing the grid-patterned city centre. Surrounding it, open land may allow the city to develop across the river – although the nearby conflict in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine is having a grim effect on the local economy.
The new stadium holds 45,000 and hosts five matches for the 2018 finals, including one round of 16 game. What will happen to the Olimp-2, conveniently set by the main road connecting to the airport east of town, isn’t yet clear. Ironically, its somewhat strange name (there’s no Olimp-1, in case you were thinking) is a diplomatic abbreviation of ‘Olimp-21 Vek’, ‘21st-Century Olympic’, how the stadium was ambitiously called during the revamp in the early 2000s.
Once also the home of lesser local club SKA Rostov, the ground has hosted football since 1930, when the city was the third biggest in Stalin’s Russia. In the east of town, thousands of workers had just been taken on at the huge Rostselmash plant making Stalinets-1, combine harvesters for the Soviet Union.
Next door, around Ostrovsky Park, the authorities built various amenities, a Palace of Culture, a children’s railway and a football ground, first given the snappy name of Rostelmash Plant Stadium. Rostselmash – Rost-ov Agri-cultural Mach-inery – created a football team, too, Selmashstroy, ‘Builders of Agricultural Machinery’, abbreviated to Selmash in 1936 and, in case anyone didn’t get it, plain old Traktor in 1941.
A year later, the Nazis occupied the industrial and transport hub of Rostov after a major battle, and the city wouldn’t get back on its feet until the 1950s.
When it did, it was the local army side that led the way on the football pitch. Operating under the usual phalanx of ever-changing acronyms – RODKA when formed in 1937, ODO from 1954, SKVO in 1957 – the club gained promotion to the Soviet Premier League in 1958 and became SKA Rostov.
Able to attract quality players happy to skip the onerous demands of national service, SKA made the top four of a strong national league five times, taking runners-up spot in 1966 when the USSR made the semi-finals of the World Cup.
In 1981, later FC Rostov coach Igor Gamula scored the only goal that beat Dynamo Moscow to take SKA to the final of the Soviet Cup. A fortnight later, 81,000 gathered at Moscow’s Luzhniki, de facto home ground of Spartak Moscow, to see the biggest club in the USSR defeat the upstarts from the south. It didn’t happen. A late goal from the prolific Sergei Andreyev, three times an impact substitute at the 1982 World Cup, took the cup to Rostov.
Post-Communist times have been kinder to FC Rostov than SKA. Based at the Rostselmash until 1970, the army side moved to their own ground, the SKA-SKVO, in 1971. A classic Soviet bowl with floodlights like waffle-makers, it had a capacity of 27,000 that was reduced to 11,000 as the club took up residence in the lower-tier Division 2 Zone South.
Currently SKA play in third-flight 2.Division South Zone – and in front of low three-figure crowds at the Stadion Lokomotiv in Bataysk, a southern suburb of Rostov way past the new World Cup arena. If ever the SKA stadium gets its overhaul, you’ll find it where Furmanovskaya ulitsa meets Razdorskaya, some 3km north of Olimp-2.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t until April 2018 that FC Rostov moved into the new arena, the season ending without the ignominy of relegation.
UK and other EU visitors to Russia require a visa – see Visa To Russia for details. Most hotels can also help with visa invitation letters.
Platov Airport is at Grushevskaya, 28km (17.5 miles) north-east of town. Journey time into town by public transport is 1hr, by bus No.285 to the train station (95r/£1.15) or bus No.286 (75r/£0.90) to Oktyabrskaya ploshchad by the bus station. Buses set off every 30-40min.
A taxi to the city should take 50min. Maxim quotes 650r/£7.80 but most are nearer to 1,000r/£12.
Many hotels offer a shuttle service.
For buses and minibuses (19r/£0.23), trams and trolleybuses (17r/£0.20), pay on board in small change. Rostov Transport has a route-planning function and very basic info. Easyway attempts to do this in English.
Taksi Galant (+7 863 230 0300) is based on the stadium side of the city centre.
The official tourist information site is hopeless.
To stay over the river near the new Rostov Arena, the best choice is the Visoki Bereg (tel +7 863 248 9730) at Levoberezhnaya ulitsa right by the Don. Its usual rates of 6,000r/£72 for a double is tripled during the World Cup, but you do get a large outdoor pool and negotiable use of a speedboat.
Re-opened on the opposite bank, smart Radisson Blu (Beregovaya ulitsa 25G/4) is a short taxi ride from the stadium. Rooms start at 6,200r/£74. Closer to Voroshilovsky Bridge at Ulyanovskaya ulitsa 52, the Hermitage looks pre-war but was opened in 2007. It imposes a two-night minimum stay during the World Cup, working out at 18,000r/£216 per night – as opposed to the regular 4,500r/£54. Next door, budget Don Quixote operates the same policy, though doubles here are 5,000r/£60 per night.
The nicest choice in town is probably affordable three-star Marins Park (Budonnovskiy prospekt 59), with availability during the World Cup at 8,000r/£96, with its own restaurant, café, nightbar and spa, pool and pool table. It’s a short walk from the city centre and the train station. Nearer the river, the Mercure (Voroshilovsky prospekt 34/107) is an 89-room three-star, from 18,000r/£216 a night during the tournament.
The nearest lodging to the bus station for airport transfers is the Villa Rio (prospekt Sholokhova 132/1), on the roundabout right by the Olimp-2 stadium. Part of the Marchenko group with properties in Krasnodar and Volgograd, the Rio is a superior mid-range 23-room hotel that usually charges around 4,000r/£48 for a double. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for availability. At No.79/14, the three-star Valencia is less showy, more old-school and more expensive – but a hot breakfast is also included.
The 2018 Fan Zone is at central Teatral’naya ploshchad’.
The ideal stretch for a bar crawl is along leafy Pushinskaya, around where the street crosses with Voroshilovsky prospekt. At that junction, Dobri El is probably the best choice for TV football, with plenty of screens and beer cheaper than elsewhere in town, the micro-brewed house variety Doroshenko.
One block further down Pushkinskaya at the corner with prospekt Sokolova, Abbey Road is Beatle-themed and Brit-friendly, with reasonable prices and decent bar food. TV sport too.
A ‘billiard club and music pub’ officially at Voroshilovsky prospekt 18/18, the Dublin Club is, in fact, at Suvorova 20 behind the Solnecheny supermarket – but a convivial spot for a beer and game of pool nonetheless. They put up a large screen for major football games. The next building down, at Suvorova 19, the Mojo is a cosy spot for pricy cocktails.
The Tornado is a handy option with four branches in Rostov, one at Bolshaya Sadovaya 41, about 300 metres down from Pushinskaya. More fast-food chain than pub, with a betting-shop thrown in, Tornado is convenient for a quick beer and fill-up while gawping at match action.