Ten years ago, Wales drew 0-0 in Moscow in the Euro 2004 play-off first leg. We lost the second leg 1-0 and, on the pitch, have never posed a serious threat to the opposition since.
The weekend was an extraordinary, surreal experience. At one point Cardiff hooligans were negotiating with local idiots to have a fight in Red Square. At the match, we had to barge policemen out of the way to enter the terrace. It was relentlessly crazy – just read Darren Tandy’s amazing tale below to get a sense of what life there is like. Here’s my piece which was first published on the Bobbing Along website:
WHAT a weekend. Stadium tantrums, muggings, hooligan attacks, heart-warming hospitality, fantastic nightlife and one of the best laughs we’ve ever had.
The noise at the game brain-poundingly intense. Ever been to an incredible, life-affirming 0-0? Well now we have. The terror was short-lived but likely to strike at any moment. Above all, everything was extreme. At the time it all seemed normal. But let the dust settle, rake through the mental sleet and you can only reach one conclusion. It was utterly gonzo, believe me.
And then there’s hope for arch-miserablists like your correspondent who have written the side off. Well OK even I would agree we can still qualify, but probably won’t.
First up, the game. What a nerve-tingling storm of the senses this was at the Lokomotiv Stadium, the Millennium’s Moscow Mini-Me.
Every challenge was like the death-or-glory final question on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Well the team’s performance was epic by 2003 standards. It was long overdue but all credit they all performed superbly.
It was pure vodka frenzy football – Stolichnaya soccer. The game might have had its drawn-out cat and mouse stages on the pitch but off the pitch the intensity and mania was matched only by the exultation that preceded Paul Bodin‘s penalty in the infamous 1993 Romania game. The place was rocking.
The Russian fans were glorious, if unimaginative. The Welsh fans were awesome and per capita (there’s only three million of us and 147 million of the silly-hat wearers) we were Titanic. Let’s boast, why not – yet again we were bloody fantastic. I know one bloke who must sell his car to pay for coming out here. And any Italian neo-fascist troglodytes reading this might like to note that despite being in the upper tier of the stand, overlooking home fans, we managed to use the toilets properly.
Just getting into the ground was like passport control at a banana republic. Arriving at the wrong end of the ground we were pitched in shoulder-to-shoulder, nose-to-nose into a scrum of 2,000 Russians. Not scary, despite the attack by Russian skinheads on Welsh fans near Red Square. Just claustrophobic. The knuckleheads clearly couldn’t afford a ticket and we avoided a punching.
Everyone was walking at twice the normal pace. And drinking. It was like a scene from an early Russian silent movie – those weren’t speeded up, I now realise. Russians really do storm about everywhere – Winter Palaces, footie games, the hairdressers. They’re in a hurry.
Late arrivals got through the turnstile eventually. The Caernarfon boys urinated where they stood to pass the time. Then we were refused entry to our seats. The vodka frenzy cranked up a notch as several fans justifiably had tantrums. It wasn’t enough that we’d had to endure
protracted visa requirements and all the weird rigmarole of Russian bureaucracy. Even though we were at the game and in the ground we had to literally barge past policemen to reach our seats otherwise we would have missed the game despite being only one flight of stairs from the action.
The next three hours passed as sweetly as the first night with your heart’s delight. Nil-nil sounds dull – it was anything but. Roasting passion on the terraces kept the biting cold at bay.
Thousands of Russians blew their vastly irritating bee-horns rather than sing. Every time we sang it sparked a call-and-response buzzing blizzard, a sleeting slab of sound to silence momentarily.
Friends in the Russian end said time and again Welsh chants swept down the stadium to disconcert the locals, bemused by the fact that a country no-one had ever heard of (no exaggeration) was making them look foolish.
On-pitch events – even the Giggs barney – paled by comparison. Two days later and the game, despite holding the attention all the way, seems almost event-free. Several half-chances, lots of petulant bookings, a flustered ref.
The first half’s most memorable moments were the motorised ambulance trolley surely bought from the set of The Flintstones; the stray passes into touch; the Nationwide League sloppiness of some of the touches.
I don’t think anyone will remember the game – it was hard even to choose a man of the match. Koumas would be a reasonable choice but why does he lose the ball every time to the third man after outwitting the first two opponents?
What will stay for eternity was the intensity. It was the most passionate crowd I’d ever stood in.
The highlight actually came after the match. We had just seen a four-minute Mark Hughes press conference and were about to hear from the Russian coach (“Wales had a great defencing”). The stadium cleared block-by-block very slowly. There were still 15,000 Russians inside 30 minutes after the end.
‘Hey Jude’ came on the turntable. It roused the Welsh fans, now wondering if they should have worn two willy-warmers instead of one, as the minus-five temperature began to bite.
The song’s chorus sparked “Wales, Wales” chants and rocked the half-empty arena. And then the Russians, block-by-block, started to applaud us. That brought tears to the eyes – especially after the Italian shenanigans and the knowledge that some locals had already attacked fans earlier in the day.
The applause was returned with interest, as we are a polite lot in Wales, and the remainder of our 75-minute post-match wait was studded with rousing farewells from the locals as they trooped out. It more our less summed up the essence of Russia: one minute you’re best mates, the next, at each other’s throats.
After a long night clubbing it was all brought home at 7am on Sunday. We got on the metro and heard the most beautiful classical music being pumped out by a violinist and an accordionist up rather early for buskers. Ooooh if you’d had your girlfriend with you, you’d have snogged her for hours. The music embraced you and lifted the spirits. They had to be the world’s best buskers.
We reached the metro entrance to be confronted by a young Russian, kooky as Rasputin (a sort of Revolutionary version of Craig Bellamy for all you non-historians). He demanded ‘Smokes’ and ran after us seething, almost foaming at the mouth and looking as though he might reach for a knife at any moment (must get that Soul Crew tattoo taken off my forehead – it just attracts trouble). Luckily he backed off just as it appeared he was about to lay about the pair of us with gusto. But it left us shaken. OK, I’m a pouff, I admit it.
Five minutes later we were back at the Rossiya Hotel. Thirty Welsh fans were jumping up and down and singing, to the tune of the Joy Division song (great taste) “Giggs, Giggs will tear you apart, again.” They obviously haven’t seen many Wales games, but they were still singing at 7am. It was a great end to a great day.
Prepare now for the best night of your life. Or the worst.
Fan of the week:
Vince Jones. Back in 1988 me and Vince did our first trip. Amsterdam. We didn’t want to see the place – it’s a dump isn’t it? No we went because we wanted to see Alan Knill win his first cap for Wales. Anyway that’s when I first caught ‘Walesawayitis’ mind-rotting affliction – a sort of Motor Neurone Disease for Welshmen. It was the best week of my life. Lovely cream buns, Ian Rush bought us a drink (Vince kissed him on the neck, honest) and Alan Knill had a stormer. Anyway, my Penarth school butty Vince has been unable to go to many games since and this was his first for 12 years. So he gets first place
then there’s Dominic Barrett, the international man of mystery worked his mystical Milford mojo, offering advice to seasoned travellers on the hotspots of the city where he lives. And also missed out on meeting many of those he helped. Many thanks for all top tips.
One top tip from Dominic Barrett was avoid the coppers. Well I tried. But I got mugged in the St Petersburg two days before the game. Three officers went through my pockets, wallet and psyche. One copper appeared to have four hands (bet he’s popular with the ladies) and they may have searched under my foreskin. They escaped with $55, my £100 camera and, perhaps, some Gorgonzola.
Still not convinced? It’s got no relevance at all to the Moscow trip but I treasure this quote from Bobby Robson in the Guardian last year. “The problem with sending Craig on an anger management course is that the manager of the anger management course would have to go on an anger management course afterwards.”
Best story courtesy of Darren Tandy:
Indebted to Darren Tandy for this one: “Walking through the Rossiya Hotel I was whistling Men of Harlech when a Bill Werbenuik lookalike with an awesome walrus ‘tache shouted ‘Football!’ at me. He was about 50 and clearly slaughtered, in a good way. After re-enacting various kicking motions with him to indicate I understood what he meant and having a deep discussion on the prospects for the second leg, he beckoned me into his room.
He had his dinner on the table and a large bottle of vodka in his hand. I trudged in and he poured me a huge slug of vodka. Then he said a toast and started going on and on about Hartson while showing he knew how to head an invisible ball. We downed the vodka in one and he plucked out a huge bit of meat from his plate, put it on a bit of rye bread and said to me ‘Eat, eat’.
I wasn’t that keen, it was some sort of liver, but he explained it was a Russian narcotic and made muscle gestures with his arms saying ‘Strong strong’. How could I refuse? I had a bit of it, absolutely foul, but he was so preoccupied pouring us both another huge slug of vodka that I managed to lob it back onto his plate and finish off the bread impressively.
We downed another vodka and I said I had to go, friends etc… he laughed and nodded, but as I got up he said, ‘Ah. No. One minute. Present present’. Fair enough. I waited as he scurried off to the window and disappeared out on the balcony. He returned with a selection of newly caught fish and picked out the best three for me.
He picked up a chilli from his meal and stuck it on top of the fish and stood back to admire his handiwork. So, I’m standing there with three bloody big wet, cold fish and a chilli stuck on top of one. I tried to say ‘No, you keep them mate’, but he shook his head and returned to the balcony where he showed me what is commonly termed a huge ruck of fish, probably too much for even him to polish off.
I then trudged the 10 minutes back to my room, eliciting marvellous stares from groups of Welsh lads and a couple of Italians who just pointed and said, rather effectively, ‘ah, three fish, lovely’.
As the hotel room had no cooking facilities I had to put them out on my balcony to keep them from smelling.
At 4am I got back from a few more drinks and took photos of said items in various poses, which I will hopefully collect from Boots, unless I’m fingered by Captain Birds Eye investigating images of piscine porn.
My room-mate and I hurled them off the balcony aiming for the park below but managing to thump them into the window of an opposite room. Gawd alone knows what the character in there made of them in the morning when he pulled the curtains back after a disturbed night’s sleep of strange wet slapping noises!
Cadwch y ffydd