The sky had been grey, cold and dark; it was a freezing evening verging on Siberian temperatures. In the Soviet capital of Moscow, the air had already reached -10 by the time of kick-off. The notorious Russian weather was biting the air making it a challenging evening for players, home fans and the 100 who travelled from Holland.
By 90 minutes the mood of the Haarlem side matched the night sky. The 0-2 reverse in the first leg of the UEFA tie had been a large step towards the UEFA Cup exit door.
As the players of FC Haarlem trooped off the tired pitch soon another cloud would be left hanging over the Lenin Stadium. In less than three weeks time the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev would die in office and the USSR entered a period of 5 weeks of nationwide mourning.
For some time the Communist regime had kept the declining health of the leader secret fearful of foreign reaction and mindful of the instability as to whom his successor as General Secretary might be. But as Russians mourned the death so another dark secret was about to envelope Soviet society; one that communist propaganda and the rule of secrecy would hide for many years.
The Spartak side of 1982 was managed by Konstantin Beskov – a man adorned with the Order of Lenin and many other Soviet state titles. His side was an equally star-studded one from Rinat Dasayev in goal to Yuri Gavrilov. Future coach Oleg Romantsev provided typically solid if unspectacular foundations.
The previous round had seen Arsenal destroyed at Highbury by Spartak, even when it had looked from the first tie that a shock might be in store. The 5-2 second leg win for Spartak in London set up a Second Round tie against FC Haarlem who had defeated low countries rivals Gent in the earlier round.
A 2-0 Moscow win over Haarlem had been clinched thanks to a crucial second goal that came in the 89th minute from Sergei Schvetsov, a Georgian-born defender who ironically scored very few goals in a short career. What followed the goal were stark echoes of the experience of fans who died in Glasgow at the second Ibrox disaster some 11 years previously. A domino effect occurred in an icy stairwell and mass death followed.
But while the events in Glasgow would soon be laid bare with 66 innocent lives lost, so the tragedy in Moscow produced only confusion and state cover up. A panic had ensued and despite a small crowd icy conditions in tightly packed areas of the stadium meant that many supporters died on leaving the ground.
In 1971 the news was not as all-pervasive as the digital ‘to the second’ news we know today. Even back then the players of Glasgow Rangers in 1971 quickly knew about the tragedy as did the Scottish newspapers the following day. But in 1982 the players of Spartak and Haarlem were left in the dark as to the tragic events. No front page spread; no minutes silence or black armbands and no facts – only hushed silence, communist spin and propaganda.
Only short somewhat tapered words from Spartak boss Nikolai Starostin would serve to enlighten the Spartak playing squad the next day as to what had occurred. Even then Soviet culture would ensure a hushed silence would descend over whispers.
Meanwhile, the FC Haarlem players would speak years later of knowing or hearing nothing.
By the time of the second leg in early November very little was publicly known either in Russia or overseas of what had happened two weeks earlier in Moscow. The Soviet state propaganda machine had quickly served to conceal and restrict reporting of the events that had unfolded with the official word being that only 66 fans died. That figure of ‘66’ was significant – it was the same number of people who had died at Ibrox; the Soviet Union could not have the world worst stadium disaster against its name.
During the cold war, dirty linen could not be washed in public. But clues soon began to unfold.
After the 3-1 second leg win in Holland plans were put in place to play the first leg of the 3rd Round against Valencia at the stadium of Lokomotiv; a ground out in the distant northeastern suburb of Preobrazhensky. No further Spartak league matches were played at the Lenin Stadium for some time for fear of public displays of mourning. Locals laying flowers at the stadium marking a loss was a clue the regime could ill afford especially so at a time when public mourning was focused on another more high profile death.
The Central Stadion Lenina was by 1982 more known for the lavish presentations of the 1980 Olympics Games. This was a great Soviet super bowl yet a communal public arena that the regime could ill afford to have associated with mass tragedy. Thousands of Muscovites would weekly use the swimming pool areas and numerous multi-sport installations which included huge sporting medical units and ice skating rinks.
Symbolically this was the ultimate theatre of Soviet sporting perfection and athleticism. The regime would only allow itself to be associated with superbly drilled exhibitions of human artistry, militaristic parades and elite sportsmanship.
Outside stood tall the symbolic statue of the man the stadium was named after – Lenin.
On 10th November 1982 three weeks after the match against Haarlem the long 18-year reign of Brezhnev was at an end. Five weeks of nationwide mourning commenced. The Soviet leader was replaced as General Secretary by Yuri Andropov – the first former head of the KGB to assume the role in the USSR.
Despite a trial where blame was placed on stadium management – blame that resulted in jail sentences and banishment to the feared Butyrka prison – for seven years every effort was made to keep news of the Spartak UEFA Cup disaster under wraps and the truth away from foreign reporting. Only in the later years of Gorbachev and glasnost did tales of what happened that night begin to unravel.
From the state repression rose personal freedom from that night.
Witnesses who had been at the game were interviewed in the post-1989 years. The full blame was placed on the state military for poor organisation. Supporters had been herded into restrictive penned areas within the ground on a night when 75000 tickets were sold but fewer than 18000 turned up. Tales arose of youngsters being baton charged with rifles down the stairwell at full time.
Exit tunnels from the ground meanwhile were said to have been blocked and closed off, forcing supporters to use icy pathways to reach already overcrowded exit routes. Like at Heysel and on that fateful day seven years later in Sheffield, many suffocated or were trampled to death.
With the break-up of the USSR Spartak supporters groups campaigned for a memorial. Chants for those who died became audible whilst banners became more visible. On the 10th anniversary of the disaster, a large stone memorial was opened and quickly decorated with the red and white of Spartak.
For many Spartak fans the blame for the accident lay firmly at the door of the militia; the state arm that had long bestowed patronage upon its traditional arch-rivals Dynamo Moscow – the gorodovski or policemen as they were often known.
And some 25 years after that fateful night another version of events reported that up to 340 fans may have died.
Many of a Spartak persuasion continue to believe that bodies were disposed of in a mass grave organised by the Soviet state, with grieving families hushed up by the newly formed regime of Yuri Andropov.
Despite the memorial that stands outside the now Luzhniki Stadium perhaps the true scale of that night when Spartak Moscow played little FC Haarlem will never be known.
Unknown supporters who died like the unknown Russian soldier, a memory embraced yet forever unknown, though never forgotten.