"I wish I hadn't scored that goal," said FC Spartak Moskva striker Sergei Shvetsov, reflecting on the tragic night of 20 October 1982. Spartak had been drawn to play Dutch side HFC Haarlem in the second round of the UEFA Cup and the first leg at the Grand Arena of the Central Lenin Stadium in Moscow, now the Luzhniki Stadium, was drawing to a close when Shvetsov struck to put the home team 2-0 up.
What followed was the worst disaster in European football history. According to the official Soviet account at the time, 66 people died in a stampede sparked by the goal, but various independent studies have since put the death toll as high as 340. Soviet censors prevented news of the event being broadcast. Even now, as players from the two clubs prepare to meet again on Saturday to play a charity match to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the tragedy, it is still unclear exactly what happened that night.
Moscow had been hit by a severe frost which left the stairways leading down from the stands very icy. With Spartak leading 1-0, people were starting to leave the stadium early when Shvetsov doubled the home side's lead. Some reports say police channelled fans down an icy staircase, others that there was just one exit for the 15,000 Spartak supporters on hand. On hearing the roar from the stands following Shvetsov's goal, the spectators leaving the ground rushed back, only to run into fans heading down the same stairway, causing the fatal crush.
"We didn't know anything about the victims," said Edgar Gess, scorer of Spartak's first goal. "We were sitting in the dressing room afterwards and we didn't have the slightest idea about the catastrophe that was unfolding right next to us. When we got back to Tarasovka [Spartak's training centre] after the match, we saw ambulances rushing in the opposite direction. They say [radio station] Voice of America broke the news that same evening, but [Spartak founder and chairman] Nikolai Starostin only learned about it the next morning and he told us people had been trampled."
Haarlem captain Martin Haar also knew nothing of the events unfolding in the stands. "I remember we had to leave the stadium really quickly afterwards," he said. "We were a bit disappointed and needed some time to recover with each other, but no, we had to leave – away, out. When you think back, you realise it was because of what had happened. And on the way back in the team bus we saw and heard an enormous amount of sirens. But in our disappointment we didn't pay much attention to it at the time."
In 1992 a memorial was opened at the stadium to honour the victims of the tragedy, who will be remembered again on Saturday when Spartak and Haarlem old boys meet in a charity match to raise funds for the families of those who died. The idea was initiated by the Dutch club and the organising committee includes the Netherlands' ambassador to Russia, the mayor of Haarlem, and Dutch football dignitaries such as Ruud Gullit, who began his playing career at Haarlem, Russia coach Guus Hiddink and FC Zenit St. Petersburg's Dick Advocaat, who coached Haarlem between 1987 and 1989.
"I still remember that match," Advocaat said. "So many deaths is an unthinkable tragedy. I support the initiative to play a game in memory of the victims." Dutch sportswriter Edwin Struis had come up with the idea for the event. "The matches with Spartak were special for Haarlem," he said. "Playing in the last 16 of the UEFA Cup was the biggest achievement in their history, which numbers 118 years. But only in 1989 did we find out what happened at Lenin Stadium after the final whistle." The memorial game will take place before Saturday's league match between Spartak and FC Moskva at the Luzhniki Stadium, which will host this season's UEFA Champions League final.
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