After a decade-long wait for a new home, FC Zenit finally played its first game at the new 68,000-seater St Petersburg Stadium on Saturday. The nervy 2-0 victory over FC Ural saw the away team receive an unprecedented three red cards by the final whistle but also marked the beginning of a new sporting chapter in the city’s history
In 20 or 30 years, not many will remember the score-line, the red cards, or the name of the opposing team in the game on 22 April 2017.
However, from this day on, legions of boys and girls will step inside the huge spaceship-like structure on Krestovsky Island for the first time and will be engulfed by the electric colours, roaring sounds, and raw emotions that endear billions of people around the world to ‘the beautiful game.’
With this legacy in mind, Zenit’s ultras staged a performance titled Back to the Future at the start of the game on Saturday, marking their symbolic return to the site of the old Kirov Stadium—the birthplace of the Zenit fan movement. The building was demolished in 2006 to make way for the new arena.
“The first match at the new arena is a historic day for our movement,” read the pre-match announcement of Zenit’s fans.
“We are returning to the place where everything began! A river of people [walking] through the park, Zenit’s arrow, blue-white-sky blue colours, the 33rd sector, a history of rising after falling, loyalty proved by years and kilometres, and traditions passed down from father to son.”
Despite the monumentality of the occasion, the game itself proved to be a scrappy—and contentious—encounter. Two red cards were handed to FC Ural after the 60th minute—to Eric Bicfalvi for a foul and to Roman Pavlyuchenko for accosting the referee—giving Zenit a serious numerical advantage.
Frustration mounted in the stands as the goalless match inched to completion before Branislav Ivanovic saved the day for Zenit and made history by scoring the first goal at the stadium with a thumping header in the 86th minute. A scuffle after the goal saw another Ural player sent off for violent conduct—marking the first time in Russian Premier League history that three players from one team were handed red cards in a game. Zenit’s second goal soon followed: in the 92nd minute, Yohan Mollo scored after a breakaway attack, ending the game.
Many in the crowd grumbled about the less-than-stellar performance of the home side after the game’s completion, despite the advantage in numbers. Zenit coach Mircea Lucescu seemed to agree.
“I’m not really happy with the game. I prefer not to win games in the manner that we won today,” he said in the post-match press conference.
Some commentators have already called the game “scandalous,” and raised doubts about the rationale behind the three red cards—arguing that they had strongly affected the flow of the game.
However, despite the contention, the stadium performed beautifully for the crowd. Excellent acoustics, climate control, and modern seats close-up to the pitch promise a rewarding experience for future generations of Zenit fans.
Zenit’s next home game will be on 7 May, against FC Terek Grozny.