Year abroad: on the road with FC Rostov during their season challenging Europe’s elite

Last year, unfancied FC Rostov enjoyed an unprecedented season in Europe’s top cup competition, inspiring a fresh kind of city pride among their fans

7 June 2018

On a sharp, cold night in March 2017, fire-crackers punctuated the Rostov-on-Don sky. Over in the east of the city, where the axial lines of the grid-system are disrupted by some gentle curves, there was a commotion. Car drivers banged on their horns. Locals peered out of windows to check on the noise. A group of people, dressed in blue and yellow, were shouting, with their smartphones held aloft, as a bus pulled up towards the Olimp-2 Stadium. For the first time in history, Manchester United, one of the world’s biggest football teams, had come to Russia’s southern metropolis.

The match was Rostov’s penultimate European game in an unprecedented season-long dalliance across the continent. They started in the Champions League, Europe’s elite tournament, knocking out Anderlecht and Ajax before being drawn against three of the continent’s most storied clubs, Bayern Munich, Atlético Madrid and PSV Eindhoven. Across six difficult matches, Rostov earned enough points to finish third in the four-team group and permit a transfer to the Europa League, European football’s second competition. A win over two legs against Sparta Prague propelled the club forward to a famous meeting with Manchester United. A 1-1 draw in Rostov followed, before defeat in Manchester and eventual elimination from the tournament.

During the season in Europe, excitement grew around the city, an antidote to local problems. Like many cities in the post-Soviet space, Rostov’s transition from socialism to Russia’s peculiar brand of capitalism was not painless. Factories closed down, manufacturing jobs moved elsewhere and local people struggled for work. Further south, the investment funnelled into Sochi and Krasnodar left many Rostovchanye feeling neglected. Even as things improved and a burgeoning artistic and craft beer culture embedded itself, Rostov developed an embattled sense of self.

“People slept in their cars in front of the box office in order to buy tickets. The city absolutely lived for football in this period”

Over the course of 2016 and 2017, football united the city in the same way that local pride had in the years following the Soviet collapse. Around Rostov, everybody has memories of the year in Europe, when Bayern Munich, Atlético Madrid and Manchester United came to the south of Russia and local people travelled abroad, taking the local blue and yellow across the continent. Artur Keleshyan, a lawyer and life-long Rostov fan, remembers the enthusiasm around the city. “People slept in their cars in front of the box office in order to buy tickets,” he says. “The city absolutely lived for football in this period. There were posters everywhere. Everyone was talking about the matches.”

Egor Nechesov, a Rostov fan and club videographer, recalled the sense of togetherness after the win over Ajax, which secured a place in the Champions League Group Stage. “It was something extraordinary,” he says. “The weather was great, it was August, the stadium was full, and when Rostov scored it was complete madness. Joy like that can be seen but not described. After the match, when I was driving home, around the whole city there were Rostov fans in club colours, chanting, cheering, beeping car horns and jumping up and down at bus stops. In cars, people turned on the city’s anthem, Rostov-Gorod, Rostov-Don. I decided to get involved and did a few laps of the city, gesturing to fellow drivers. It was unbelievable how the city was completely consumed by one topic: football.”

Just a few years earlier, all this would have seemed impossible. Traditionally, Rostov have struggled towards the bottom of Russia’s Premier League. Their fans were accustomed to seeing the likes of Bayern Munich on television, not in their own city. But after appointing veteran Turkmen manager Kurban Berdyev in 2014, results improved to the point where they finished as league runners-up in 2016, earning them the right to vie with Europe’s best. Sasha Milyukov, a Rostov fan in his mid-20s, remembered travelling to Prague on holiday, years before Rostov played there. He saw the excitement around the city as London side Chelsea arrived for a match against Sparta, the local team. At the time, he says, “me and my friends couldn’t even dream that somehow we’d be travelling to Europe to watch our provincial side’s matches.” But, a few years later, he was there to watch Rostov. “I’m standing again in the middle of Prague’s old town and all around I see yellow and blue colours,” he recalls. “It was a dream that turned into reality. There were so many incredible emotions and experiences, and so many people from Rostov and from Russia.”

“The emotions were overwhelming. They had make the next day an official day off in the city because everyone was out until the early hours”

For each Rostov fan, there are certain moments that are forever enshrined in memory, unlikely to ever be repeated. Many focus on the club’s 3-2 home win over Bayern Munich, the 28-time German Bundesliga winners and five-time European champions. “For me,” Keleshyan says, “the match against Bayern will go down in history forever. There hasn’t been a day since when I haven’t thought about this game. It’s probably the best match I’ve been to in the last 15 years of supporting this club.” Milyukov agrees. “After the home win over Bayern, I was lost for words,” he remembers. “The emotions were overwhelming. The Champions League, the anthem, the victory. It was incredible. They had make the next day an official day off in the city because everyone was out until the early hours.”

But some smaller, more personal recollections remain, situated within specific moments. For Milyukov, it was music. “When the Champions League anthem played in the Olimp-2 Stadium, tears of happiness started to fill my eyes. Who would have thought that someday that song would have played in our modest but much-loved stadium?” For Nechesov, it was the communion between club and fans following the win over Anderlecht. “The fans met the team at the airport, setting off fireworks,” he says. “The players and the coaches gave high-fives out to all of the fans. Everyone was delighted with how it all worked out.”

Today, Rostov have reverted back to their monotonous existence at the lower end of Russia’s Premier League, the thud of mediocrity dampened by the memories of 2016 and 2017. A new stadium, opened in time for the 2018 World Cup, offers some promise for the future, but the team is struggling. Much of the squad that competed in the Champions League and Europa League has departed. Just a few remain on, battling away with players of a lower quality, hoping for a landmark win against domestic big boys Zenit St Petersburg, or one of the Moscow sides. The realities of Manchester and Munich are fading, but the memories remain, sustaining fans for another generation; over the next few decades, they’ll be reanimated as stories for children and grandchildren.

As Milyukov puts it: “My team, with their stadium ten minutes from my house. The team from the factory that my great-grandfathers worked in. The team from Ostrovsky Park. The team that I have supported all my life, that my grandfather first took me to watch, in 1995, back when they were called Rostelmash. The team that played in such stadiums, against such teams and with such class. It is unforgettable.”

Text: Eliot Rothwell