Which day is it? Did I leave today?
I am not quite sure, however, I do know that I am in Moscow, Russia or Russki on a free ride that my old friend, Scott Filla, won a few moths ago from Heineken. Ever since Scott gave me a call on a dreary Monday morning at the beginning of April after a long college weekend to tell me the awesome news. I believe our conversation went something like--“Hey Joe, remember filling out the forms at that bar you took me to watch Champions League games?” “Sure, I remember over at Barristers.” “Well I won!” “What did you win?” “Oh a round trip for two to Moscow to watch the Champions League Final in May. Oh, I think everything is paid for so it’ll be a free ride.”
Well it is finally May 20th even though I did not sleep between the 20th and 19th, and everything about this trip has been a free ride. I hopped on the plane around 1 pm Atlanta time and by 1:05 am Eastern Time everything I knew was upside down. Eleven hours later after many unsuccessful attempts to sleep I hopped or skipped off the plane just in time to realize that in Russki I do not have any rights. All the training that I received as a Catholic schoolboy came rushing back over my free loving college attitude, as I did not want anything to do with the Russian police or border control. My silence and polite ways kept me out of their gaze until I was able to enter their country through their least efficient custom and passport lines.
At this point I realized how entirely screwed we both were in Russia. Being unable to read or speak Russian I felt as thought we had no chance to find our hotel much less find our way out of the airport. All of these apprehensions vanished as I saw at least a dozen beautiful young Russian girls with Heineken scarves and banners smiling at us. After we approached them and told them our names they wisped away to a Heineken bar that had been roped off from the dirt and confusion of Moscow for our own personal use. We sat down and drained two or three Heinekens, spoke English to anyone that approached us, and realized that we were being taken care for no other reason except that Scott is a lucky bastard and I am his friend. In this bar we came to understand ourselves, as czars of the capitalist system overlooking the tired Russian people; Nicholas II would have been proud.
We were then escorted to our own private Heineken tour bus with our own tour guide, who taught us a view phrases in Russian (A full sized tour bus and we were the only people on it). It was nice being in a huge bus especially when the traffic was so awful. When we finally reached our Americanized Holiday Inn we were informed that we both had been given our own hotel rooms, and that the extra nights that we asked for were paid for in full. Once we got settled in we decided to explore this Moscow neighborhood. We found a small café that served beer and small Russian pizzas so we sat and tried to learn Russian from another good looking Russian girl. Feeling a little drunk and tired we decided to walk back to our hotel around midnight to sleep up for game day.
Game day we woke up about at about 7:30 went downstairs to a full American style buffet breakfast. After recharging our batteries we asked the front desk clerk how to get to the Red Square. She suggested taking the Metro, which happens to one of the best and most beautiful mass transit systems in Europe. She forgot to mention how confusing the Metro was for people who could not read Russian. I had to spend about 10 minutes matching the letters in the Russian alphabet before I could get the hang of the Metro.
Once we reached the Red Square it was like being dropped off in a different planet. Medieval Russian buildings collided with the Soviet architecture that clashed roughly with the new GUM mall that stood in the shadow of the Kremlin’s high walls. We had to wait in line to go through a police guarded metal detector to enter the Red Square. The first thing we saw was St. Basil’s cathedral through the arches of the entrances silhouetted against the mist and fog rising from the river below.
Then we were hit by the full force of the English presence in Russia as we saw thousands of them in their team jerseys singing their songs with Russia fur caps waiting to enter Champions village, which was set up by the Champions League in the middle of the Red Square. It had tents with video shows, shops, a turf soccer field, an arcade, and a structure with two towers where people would shoot balls back and forth.
At the Red Square on our way to the game
We spent the rest of the morning exploring the Red Square, the GUM, and then another underground mall next to the entrance to the Kremlin. Around two o’clock we tried to enter the Kremlin, but all the tickets were sold out, so we decided to go eat our lunch that was supposed to be paid for by Heineken. We found a nice Russian Lounge that played French Jazz about a mile away from the square. We ordered up a few free Heinekens, of course, until we thought we figured out the menu, which consisted of mostly Italian and Russian cuisine. The waitress let us hang out for a long time which was nice because it had not stopped raining since we touched down in Moscow yesterday. We sat and tried conversing with another beautiful Russian only to be shot down because of language barrier. Although at this point we were happy just to get a smile out of a Russian considering the mean looks most of them consistently wore across their faces. By the time we were done eating and we figured how Heineken was paying for lunch we were feeling a little drunk. We left the lounge feeling dry and merry and headed back to the Metro through the gloomy streets of Moscow that still leave me wondering what it looks like when it’s not raining.
We left the for the game and the teams’ pre-game parties around six and found our way through the Metro maze until we caught a glimpse of the Soviet stadium around seven. On our march to the stadium through the drizzle we were stopped at least five or six times to show our tickets and be patted down for security reasons. When we reached the stadium we went to the Champions League vendors, bought souvenirs and then tried to explore the outside of the stadium. Police barricades cut the exploration short. We decided to turn back and go to the Chelsea team party. The party was a blur of blue with tons of games and stands. The best game had to be the inflatable human foosball where kids strapped themselves to horizontal rods and played soccer in an enclosed and inflatable foosball field. The entertainment for the fans included a French electronic jazz band and a group of traditional Russian singers, who danced in their traditional Russian attire.
After we had felt like we had seen enough we decided to discover our vantage point in Luzhniki Stadium. Upon entering the stadium we were searched and patted down again. Then when we went to ask someone where our seats were located we were searched again. When we reached the stairs to walk up to our seats we were searched. When we walked through the tunnel to get to our seats we were search for the last time. As we took our seats we waved to the police officer at the end of our row because each row had its own police officer.
Throughout this entire process I had been trying to figure out what the Russians were thinking when they built this stadium because it was to say the least, cramped. We took our puny communal seats that were right on top of each other. The history of Luzhniki Stadium, or previously named Central Lenin Stadium (opened in 1956), explained my level of uncomfort but I was in a seat that I did not pay for in the sporting event of my life. The only thing left to do was count how many times the jumbo tron would play the same greatest goals tribute until the pre-game show started. After about twenty or so reruns the Russians started to set up the pre-game show and the English football fans filed into their sections.
At first it seemed as though the Chelsea supports were going to be the loudest until a large group of Man United fans reached their seats singing “Glory, Glory Man United.” When the stadium filled up the two groups seemed about even, but since we were right next to the Man U side we thought their chants and songs were louder and better especially the rendition of “Take me Home United Road”. On a side note it might have been the best song I have ever heard. However the site of the sea of blue flags on the Chelsea was magnificent. The Manchester United players came out about 50 minutes before game time while the Chelsea players waited till the 30-minute mark. Then about five minutes before game time the players ran off the field and the pre-game show commenced.
The pre-game show was one of the most epic performances I had ever witnessed. It was like watching a dance showed that cross over between the Emperor’s guards in Star Wars and the Nutcracker ballet. The dancers were phenomenal and the other group that looked like the Emperor’s guards dressed in gold hoods and dark red capes released thousands of balloons from a giant champions league soccer ball in the center of the field while a choir filled the stadium with their voices echoing the Champions League theme song throughout the stadium.
With all of this before the game even started the anticipation was indescribable. When the teams kicked off it was definitely apparent who controlled the game as everybody who watch the game knows. As the game wore on everyone watching the game knew it was just a matter of time before Ronaldo would touch perfection and when it happened the chants started
running down the wing
hear united sing
After the goal, Manchester United still seemed to be dominating, however, the tide seemed to change after a long ball to Dieder. He ran to his Chelsea faithful, threw up his hands and told them to cheer. After that Chelsea’s energy level started to build until it erupted with Frank’s goal immediately before half time.
When the game resumed the Manchester United fans exploded into song and chant and urged their team back to domination. Slowly but surely the Blues began to take control of the game until the Chelsea fans seemed to drowned out the United fans that were right next to us. After watching how both teams played during regular time we were hoping to see at least one goal in extra time and we almost saw four. However; it soon became apparent that penalties would settle this match especially after all the time wasting.
The bit of excitement that came during extra time was when Didier left the field due to a red card. All this action occurred right in front of our seats. It all started with the Chelsea player going down to help his team rest. Tevez was extremely upset and told his team to push forward so that they could return the favor of kicking the ball out of bounds in a dangerous part of the field instead of being a good sportsman. Once this occurred the players erupted and so did Scott and I. We seemed to be the only people in our section that immediately stood up anticipating a fight like we were at a St. Louis Blues game. We were unable to see why Dieder was thrown out, but we knew that was a detrimental decision considering penalties were right around the corner.
When they came we prayed that they would be on our side of the field, and just like this trip in which everything had gone our way the free kicks were on our side. No one expected Ronaldo to miss and everyone expected John Terry to seal the victory, but when both of these men missed it was as if the one side’s deflation inflated the other side and this was evident in the intensity of the crowds. After Van der Sar’s save to win the game the United side of crowd went into the loudest frenzy I have ever seen. The only thing that was able to organize them was their own songs, which they sung even louder than they did at the beginning of the game. Underneath the lights the heavy rain became evident as the Manchester United players seemed to be heroes after a war in some strangely realistic fairy tale. As they seemed to march or float up to the trophy presentation the whole scene became too fantastic as if it was out of a heroic movie of some sort that I just had not seen yet.
We decided to leave when they were presenting the most value player award and then I snapped back into reality and saw how difficult it was going to be to leave the stadium. When we finally got out of the intensely packed crowd of foreigners I realized we were no longer in a fairy tale but headed instead to what seemed like a Soviet gulag. Walking out of the stadium in the 3 am streetlight shadow of a giant statue of Lenin we began a long humble walk through a 300 meter tunnel with Russian police officers, then SWAT or riot control officers, then mounted police, and finally military personal with automatic weapons lining the path to the Metro station where Manchester fans had erupted into song.
When we got back to the hotel we decided to get a couple of beers since the bar was open. After a couple Heineken the English fans started getting back to the hotel and we partied with them since the beers were on the rich Manchester United fans for the inexperienced American football fans. We ran into fans that had gone to all United’s championships, who loved winning and celebrating. We drank beer and vodkas while we heard stories and watched the English get rowdy until about six in the morning when we decided to fall asleep.