On This Day: Remembering the Luzhniki stadium’s forgotten disaster

Termed as the Soviet Union’s worst sporting disaster, the Luzhniki tragedy saw 66 deaths. The disaster has been largely forgotten as details were suppressed.

Luzhniki memorial: The monument erected near the site of the Luzhniki disaster, in memory of the victims.   -  Getty Images

On this day, 37 years ago, a group of fans —  many of them adolescents — went to watch a football match in Moscow ...and never returned.

​An elaborate cover-up by the state followed which saw the incident being shelved, only for it to resurface once again seven years later. This time, the official death toll of the incident was declared to be 66, with some reports suggesting that even this figure was a far cry from the actual body count.

It all happened on a freezing night in Moscow’s Grand Sports Arena of the Central Lenin Stadium (now known as Luzhniki Stadium), on October 20, 1982. FC Spartak Moscow was playing against HFC Haarlem in a second-round UEFA Cup match and the temperatures were as low as -10 degrees Celsius.

Although 82,000 tickets were available for the game, about 16,500 were sold owing to the bad weather. In order to clear the snow before the game, the stadium had opened up only two of the four stands for the attendees, namely the East Stand (C) and the West Stand (A). Nearly 12,000 fans, mainly Spartak Moscow supporters, went to the East Stand because it was closer to the nearest Metro station.

As the game was largely uneventful after Spartak Moscow led in the 16th minute through Edgar Gess, fans began to leave to avoid the rush towards the Metro station at the full-time whistle.

READ | The evolution of a ‘libero’ in modern football

According to some reports, several fans were coming down the stairwell in block C when a woman lost her shoe on the stairs and as they tried to help her, they were crushed by a dense crowd, which was limited by metal barriers. Unaware of the tragedy that unfolded on the stairs, many young fans who were on their way out, also stumbled over the bodies.

Just before the final whistle, Sergei Shvetsov scored the second goal for Spartak. This prompted fans who were on their way out, to turn back and join the celebrations, only to run into the mob which was adamant about leaving.

"It would have been better if I had not scored it”, said Shvetsov, expressing his regret.

Andrei Piatnickiy of FC Spartak Moscow and Martin Haar of HFC Haarlem during the memorial match in 2007.   -  Getty Images

 

In the end, as the darkness grew and the fans slipped on the icy stairs —  struggling to find their way out —  many of them breathed their last.

While this was a version of the disaster which is commonly shared, according to Dutch journalist Iwan Tol, who wrote the book ‘Drama in het Lenin-stadion’, the disaster was to be blamed on the police, which attempted to arrest Spartak fans for their attitude against the communist regime.

Tol said that the Spartak fans had a reputation of singing about their opposition to the state and the Communist Party. On the night of the match, according to him, the state authorities had decided to take a step against the crowd, which would turn up in smaller numbers than usual. Tol was told that the authorities locked down the stadium, which caused the stampede and subsequent deaths.

GALLERY | 10 youngest goalscorers in La Liga history

Termed as the Soviet Union’s worst sporting disaster, the Luzhniki catastrophe saw 66 people lose their lives in the stampede. Post-mortem reports claimed that the victims died of compressive asphyxia.

The only news about the tragedy immediately after it took place appeared in a local daily 'Vechernyaya Moskva'. It said: “On 20 October 1982, after the football match at the Grand Sports Arena of the Central Lenin Stadium, as spectators were on their way out, an accident took place due to disturbances in the movement of people. There were casualties. An investigation into the circumstances of the accident is under way.”

It was only in 1989, seven years after the disaster, that Soviet newspapers finally began to report on it, as the ‘Glasnost’ policy of openness and liberalism was introduced by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev towards the end of the 1980s. 

Under the reign of President Leonid Brezhnev, who died 21 days after the incident, none of the details were made public. The disaster was also followed by a state cover-up, mass burials, and criminal charges against the stadium director and his assistant.

However, the official number of deaths is still challenged as several investigations and witnesses’ accounts put the toll closer to 350, which would make it the worst disaster in the history of football.

On the tenth anniversary of the tragedy, in 1992, a monument was erected near the site of the disaster, and on the 25th anniversary, a memorial match was played between Spartak and Haarlem.

Since then, the Luzhniki stadium also has played host to several games, including the 2008 Champions League final, the 2018 FIFA World Cup opener and the final.

Luzhniki stadium’s darkest days are over but also largely forgotten.

  Dugout videos