Exactly 60 years ago, on 31 July 1956, the heart of Russian sport was born in Moscow. This was how people referred to the Luzhniki Stadium, formerly the Central Lenin Stadium, which has featured prominently in the history of not only Russia and the USSR but also the whole world. Now the country's main sports venue is preparing for perhaps the most important chapter in its existence – the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.
This stadium has hosted the Olympic Games, the finals of the UEFA Cup and the UEFA Champions League, the Ice Hockey World Championships and the World Championships in Athletics. It has also served as a breeding ground for talent, since Torpedo Moscow's Youth Football School used to be based there and where they supplied the Soviet Union and Russia with a fair number of gifted players.
A Sports City among cucumbers and strawberries
"For any Soviet footballer, the Luzhniki was the biggest stage in the country, like the Bolshoi Theatre for opera and ballet," explained former USSR defender Evgeny Lovchev, who played at the 1970 FIFA World Cup in Mexico, in an interview with FIFA.com, "but for me it was also an extremely special place, it was my home."
At that time, the Luzhniki was called Sports City because the site was not only home to one stadium; the gigantic two-kilometre-squared area encompassed an entire sporting complex.
"I started going to play football at the Luzhniki when I was 11 years old," recalled the Youth Football School graduate. "I always tried to get there as early as possible because there weren't just football matches at Sports City; there were loads of things to do for the whole family. Fans of the game were constantly playing football on the small-sided pitch, but you could play other sports too."
The area where the Luzhniki was built used to be a poor suburb of Moscow, where the locals grew cucumbers and strawberries in the marshy terrain. It is thought that the name Luzhniki comes from the Russian word for “meadow” and refers to the low-lying flood meadows in the area.
Soviet authorities decided to equip the Central Lenin Stadium with everything necessary for a variety of sports, as well as a big park in which Muscovites could relax. The design was completed in 60 days, while the entire facility was built in 450 days.
When opened in 1956, the stadium included 73 rows in the stands and could hold 103,000 supporters on wooden terraces. If you were to place the stadium at full capacity into one line, it would stretch for more than 40 kilometres – the distance of a marathon in athletics – and would take more than two hours to run. The width of every seat was set at 40 centimetres exactly.
Happy memories for Buffon and Cannavaro
The Luzhniki was the host venue for the 1985 FIFA World Youth Championship final, where Claudio Taffarel won his first international title for Brazil. The Seleção faced Spain in the showpiece event and came away with a 1-0 victory, despite a superb performance from Andoni Goikoetxea.
The stadium also holds happy memories for Gianluigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Lilian Thuram, Juan Sebastian Veron and Hernan Crespo, who secured their first European club triumph when Parma defeated Marseille 3-0 in the 1999 UEFA Cup final.
The Luzhniki hosted another major European final nine years later, the all-English showdown between Chelsea and Manchester United in the 2008 UEFA Champions League. It was a night to forget for Chelsea captain John Terry, who slipped on the rain-soaked turf in the run-up to take the decisive penalty and threw away his team's chance to lift the trophy. Ultimately, it was the Red Devils who were celebrating after the shoot-out, having bagged their second Champions League win under Sir Alex Ferguson.
The biggest names in world football had graced the Luzhniki Stadium on prior occasions too, like in 1971 when Gerd Muller, Sir Bobby Charlton and others turned out for the World XI in Lev Yashin's testimonial match.
The closing ceremony of the 1980 Summer Olympics holds a special place in the hearts of Russian sports fans in general: the touching images of the tournament's mascot Misha flying out of the stadium still stirs up powerful emotions.
The Luzhniki has also played an important role outside of sporting history. The first rock concerts to take place in Soviet Moscow were held here, with performances from The Scorpions, Bon Jovi and Ozzy Osbourne.
The arena is currently undergoing reconstruction, so at the World Cup in 2018 it can stand before football supporters from all over the planet in all its glory.
Did you know?
· According to official statistics, more than 360 million people have attended events at the Luzhniki in its 60-year history;
· More than 60 world records have been broken at the stadium in a variety of sports;
· The venue has hosted more than 100,000 events;
· More than 50,000 goals have been scored here in football and ice hockey matches.