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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Boys’ Football at Luzhniki
Charles W. Borden

Like many Moscow visitors, I first saw Luzhniki Park and Stadium from the panoramic view above it and the Moscow river from Lenin Hills (which re-acquired its pre-1935 Vorobyovy Gory (Sparrow Hills) moniker in 1999). From that perch, with its huge ski jump descending down to the Moscow River, the huge Luzhniki park is surrounded on three sides by the river, and is now separated from the city on the fourth by the Third Ring Road. My wintertime inquiry to the expat ‘listserve’ about boys’ football resulted in firsthand acquaintance with this sublime corner of Moscow.

After five years in the Moscow Youth Soccer League, the fabulous but all too short Saturday programme for boys and girls that the Moscow Times organises each autumn, my son was ready for more serious play. Irish expat David Gilmartin kindly responded to my email plea; his son David had already been training at Luzhniki with a group of about 25 boys bearing Torpedo Moscow team colours.

Unlike youth football back home (we call it soccer) where schools organize sports teams and leagues, Moscow teams are independent and usually affiliated with one of the many stadiums in the city’s districts. In some cases, wellknown Russian professional clubs such as CSKA, Lokomotiv, Dinamo or Spartak sponsor teams that are preparatory to a place with the professionals. Teams are organised by year of birth; a boy born in 1999 will be on the 1999 roster.

Oleg Gennadievich Alfimov, a longterm veteran of Russia’s Dinamo (Moscow) and the Metallurg (Krasnoyarsk) teams is the trainer at Luzhniki. Alfimov supervises two groups, ages 6-9 (birthdates from 2000 to 2003), and ages 10-13 (birthdates from 1997 to 1999). At these ages, the play is at the serious recreational stage. The season starts in August and continues through June with training late afternoon three days per week for up to two hours a day. The cost is about 2000 rubles per month. For players who show promise, Alfimov will recommend a player to one of Moscow’s teams such as Torpedo, where training shifts to high gear five days a week with league competition.

Training is indoors in the winter, and moves outside in early spring. Oleg Gennadievich also organises other special events for his trainees, for instance he arranged for them to accompany Russia’s Rubin Kazan players to the field for the CSKA-Rubin Kazan game that opened the Russia Cup in early March. He will have a summer football camp outside Moscow in July

The Olympiski Kopleks Luzhniki (OK Luzhniki) controls and operates the Luzhniki complex, which covers 180 hectares and provides services for dozens of sports in more than 150 training areas and halls, courts and fields. Football alone commands five standard fields and five outdoor mini-football areas, many with artificial turf, plus a number of indoor football halls. Tennis, hockey and water sports are also well represented.

The Luzhniki centrepiece is the massive Luzhniki Grand Arena, which bore Lenin’s name when it was used for the ceremonies of the 1980 Olympics. Other main buildings include the Small Arena (though the building is huge) and the once-majestic Olympic pool complex.

The Grand Arena, awarded five stars by UEFA, hosts the country’s major football events such as the recent Champions League games between CSKA and Sevilla and Inter-Milan. Spartak plays its home games at the Grand Arena, and the stadium hosted the UEFA final between Manchester United and Chelsea in 2008, and the 1999 UEFA Cup Final between Parma and Marseille. The Grand Arena has also been a cultural centre, home of the 1989 Moscow Music Peace Festival, and later Moscow concerts by Micheal Jackson and Madonna. U2 will perform its first concert in Russia at the Grand Arena in August.

We met David Gilmartin for introductions for our first visit to football training in the middle of this snowy winter. I paid the fifty rubles car fee at the park entrance and drove right up to main entrance of the Grand Arena, which faces the ski jump on the other side of the river. I was fascinated with Luzhniki from that point on; one could call it love at first sight. To me this was like putting your son to Little League at Yankee Stadium.

At the entrance I noticed the bronze UEFA Five Star plaque, and signs for the Luzhniki hotel on the fourth floor and the sports center on the second floor. We passed the Luzhniki Press Centre on the way up. The kids were already in the changing room, with soccer mums and a few dads hanging around the hallway. After a quick introduction to Oleg Gennadievich, Yan was quickly off to the indoor mini-football hall.

I now use my hour and a half, three days a week for a welcome break, some fresh air, walks and exploration. The hotel was an easy first stop, up a couple of flights of stairs, to ask a few questions. The receptionist was courteous and the hotel, which occupies the southwest side of the arena, appeared clean and well maintained, and it is open to the public at rates that are low by Moscow standards. I thought, “what an interesting place to stay (as long as one has auto transport or don’t mind a 700 meter walk to the nearest metro station).” Over the next weeks I noticed a number of team buses at the hotel.

The Luzhniki Museum of Sport occupies the northeast side of the Grand Arena near the large statue of Lenin. The museum is an archive of artifacts and history of Russian sport dating from prerevolutionary times to the present and it contains trophies, prizes and gifts from sports federations around the world. The ticket office for Luzhniki events is nearby.

I paced off the distance (700 meters) southeast to the Vorobyovy Gory metro station, which hangs over the Moscow River from the Metromost (metro bridge). This station, originally built in 1958, was closed for eighteen years and finally re-opened in 2002 after repairs. It’s the longest metro station, accessible from both sides of the river, with tall panoramic windows.

I passed the Luzhniki pool, just a football kick away from the metro entrance. At the hotel I had been told there was no indoor pool, but was directed to the outdoor Luzhniki swimming pool, which was operating – and this was mystifying, since the temperature outside was -10. There were dozens of cars in front of the large 50s-era building that houses both a 50-metre and 25- metre pool with steep stadium seats on two sides. I went through the main entrance and peered back through glass doors to the pools to see condensation rising from the warm (25-27 degree) pools with snow piled around the edges. I checked the rules: with a doctor’s certificate and bathing cap, a swimmer can appoint a set 45-minute period for a swim or make a regular schedule of appointments. There is also a scuba club that issues PADI certificates.

Luzhniki has a few snack kiosks, but my favorite is a blini stand directly on the river opposite the ski jump, which was open even in the dead of winter. Blini are prepared on the spot with filling of your choice – I like the honey and walnut at 110 rubles and another 30 rubles for a hot tea with lemon – perfect to enjoy standing at a round Coca Cola table by the frozen Moscow river with an air temp of -10.

There is a VIP Restaurant inside the stadium and a buffet by the museum. The restaurant Olimp stands on the Moscow River near the metro, which has a large pan-Caucasus menu. Olimp has several private lodge-type dining rooms on its grounds. I regularly see a number of large, black elitny cars out front and expect that Olimp makes a good, out-of-the-way meeting place for Moscow’s biznismeny.

As spring, and the skaters and bicyclists, rolled in I noticed how well maintained are the grounds at Luzhniki; none of the stray plastic bags and trash that tarnishes many of Moscow’s other recreational areas. There are skate and bike rentals and even a paintball park. It is a refreshing place to explore.

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