A Soviet tragedy: The last thing they saw in their lives was football

Buried in the Soviet past of the Luzhniki Stadium, where the opening match of the World Cup will be played, is a tragedy the full extent of which isn’t known even to this day.

Written by Sriram Veera | Updated: June 13, 2018 9:33:36 am
world cup, fifa world cup 2018, fifa world cup, football world cup, luzhniki stadium, football news, sports news, indian express In this photo taken on Wednesday, June 28, 2017 the statue of Soviet founder stands in front of the Luzhniki stadium entrance in Moscow. (AP Photo/Denis Tyrin)

How many football fans died on an icy Moscow October night in 1982 in the stadium that will host the first match and the final in 2018? 66 or was it 350? It’s a peculiarly USSR problem thrown up by communist secrecy that was prevalent in the day that the figures are still contested to the day. It’s mind-boggling; the tragedy and the ensuing tragedy that followed the deaths.

What we know is this: at least 66 died in a stampede, attempts to hush up the affair were made by government authorities, it took a decade — collapse of communism — for some acknowledgment of the deaths to begin. No closure though has been possible for families and people as even to this day conflicting reports of the tragedy keep circulating. Some blame the police for mismanagement, some say the administrative decision to pack more than 12,000 people in just two sections of the stands with just a couple of exits proved fatal. Even remorse and a remembrance-memorial weren’t possible immediately. It took a decade, in 1992, for a memorial monument. Until then, it was just random flowers that would pile up now and then that hinted at the tragedy. For years, matches were not held in October as authorities feared that families and friends of the deceased and survivors would place flowers as a sign of protest.

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It was a European Football Association match between the Spartak Moscow and Haarlem of Netherlands in the 100,000 seater Lenin Stadium (later renamed Luzhniki). By the time the game began, it was snowing, the temperature had dipped to minus 10 degrees, and only 12,000 people turned up, some say 18,000. The authorities decided to open just two sections near the metro stations. Spartak, one of the old Russian clubs before private clubs bankrolled by oligarchs took over the country’s football, had taken an early lead.

In the telling of some reports that continue to emerge to this day, a second Spartak goal in the dying moments of the game caused havoc. Just before that goal, many in the crowd had started to leave to catch the metro, and police were urging them to leave to avoid crowd problems at the station. But that late goal, and subsequent celebrations, piqued the curiosity of the departing fans who tried to turn back up the stairs to join in the fun. It’s not clear to this day what happened: one of the early reports in a Soviet newspaper claimed a lady spectator fell in the stands from the upper tier, and it led to a stampede. Not many other newspapers had that version though. Only this is confirmed: a combination of an icy stairwell, and limited number of exit routes trapped people and led to a stampede.

That last goal, just 20 seconds before the end, was scored by Georgian-born striker Sergei Shvetsov, who came to regret that goal, saying “I wish I hadn’t scored.” Both teams were kept in the dark about the incident. The Dutch team didn’t realise it for years in fact that they were part of a gruesome tragedy, and even the Spartak players got a whiff of it a day after the incident when an official alluded to it without giving much details.

As was the case then, hardly any local media covered it. Just an eveninger did the next day. Again, there wasn’t much clarity. “Yesterday, at Luzhniki, after the end of the football match, an unfortunate event occurred. There were casualties among the spectators.”

The country was unaware of other things as well. The extent of the illness of country’s chief leader Leonid Brezhnev, who would die in 21 days after this accident. The USSR was thrown into a five-week mourning period, and his successor, Yuri Andropov, the first former head of KGB to become General Secretary, started investigations that would eventually, much to the dissatisfaction of the people, pin the blame on some stadium authorities. Even these investigations weren’t widely available and it was only in 1992, on the 10th anniversary, that with the coming of the memorial that some sort of closure was achieved.

In 2007, on the 25th anniversary of the disaster, veterans of Spartak and Haarlem played a friendly whose proceeds were donated to the families of the victims. Writing in The Moscow Times, a Russian commentator wrote: “The last thing they saw in their lives was football”.

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