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Official Review by Danny Armstrong, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
Zenit St. Petersburg play their Russian Premier League home games at the Grand Sport Arena of the Petrovsky Stadium, a complex that also holds the Minor Sport Arena which plays host to FK Dinamo St Petersburg home matches. Known as Lenin Stadium when the city was Leningrad, the 21,500 seater ground is nestled on the edge of the Petrogradsky district on Petrogradsky Island. Built in 1925 and framed beautifully by the Zhdanovka and Malaya Neva River, the stadium forms its own peninsula accessible only by bridge.
Although once the capital of Russia, St. Petersburg bears an uncanny likeness to a major European town, the result of its founder, Peter the Great, travelling to Leipzig and Manchester to study their structures before creating Petrograd. The city’s storied 313-year history seems to permeate its Western form in that it manages to be “Russia’s Window to the West” and simultaneously preserve the memory of the Leningrad Blockade. The result is an atmosphere that is typically patriotic but diluted, although not tainted, by a non-Russian element.
There is a distinct Petersburger pride in this outside factor. The city’s residents believe it places them ahead of the Russian culture curve and believe that they, not Muscovites, are at the centre of Russia’s past and future. This is never more so apparent than in its football ground.
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Refreshments at Petrovsky include hot kukuruza (corn on the cob) with a sprinkle of salt that will set you back 150 rubles ($2.24) and is available separately from one of the many stalls located around the ground.
A hot dog and a bottle of kvass (traditional Russian drink made from fermented rye bread) is a favoured combo among Zenit fans and cost 200 rubles ($3) and 100 rubles ($1.50) respectively, while a cup of either tea or coffee is 100 rubles. There are also small huts outside the ground where you can enjoy your food.
As per Russian Premier League rules, there is no alcohol on sale at the ground. Available drinks are 'Baltika 0' non-alcoholic beer (which has to be said, has a crisp taste to it, the only plus of a previous unwitting purchase) for 100 rubles.
There are few places prettier than St Petersburg on a sunny day. There are few places more electric than their football stadium when a major rival visits.
Zenit's main group of 'ultras' - the phenomenally-named 'Music Hall' crew - stand on the 'Virazh' terrace behind the north-facing goal and provide much of the atmosphere inside the ground. Hasty pops and bangs of flares and then coruscating plumes of smoke will most likely follow a home goal in Petrosky. Bare chests heave out songs to the tune of local band Leningrad - Up in the Air throughout the game. It all makes for an electric atmosphere.
The stadium is located in a rather dense urban area on Petrovsky island. On the way to the ground it is impossible to miss stickers bearing Zenit slogans. The most popular reads "Nashye Imya Zenit" which translates exactly as "Our Name is Zenit." They decorate lamp posts and signs directly outside the ground and in the metro station in an unmistakable litter of territorial stamps. The message reads true: Their name is Zenit. This is their patch.
If you choose to go over to Vasilyevsky Island on the other side of a short bridge from the Petrovsk there are many bars and restaurants to choose from in one of the trendier portions of town. Petrogradsky island itself, which is the city's third-largest island in the Neva river delta, is home to St. Petersburg State University of Information, Technologies, Mechanics and Optics.
Around 30 minutes up from the ground, just past Gorkovskaya metro station and "Bolshoi Coffee" (Big Coffee) cafe built into a hill, you will come to Petropavlovskaya Krepost (Peter and Paul Fortress), the very first building built in the city in 1703. The fortress was used as to house political prisoners by the tsarist regime but today houses the Saint Petersburg Mint and forms part of the State Museum of Saint Petersburg History.
Zenit 'ultras' - the name given to their sets of hardcore fans - are famous throughout Russia as one of the more prominent and creative group of football supporters. The Music Hall crew - Zenit's hooligan group - are situated in the 'Virazh' fan zone, where a small banner reads 'The Pride of the Northern Capital' (Гордость северной столицы) a gentle reminder of their self-esteem.
Shortly after Artyom Dzyuba received an award from the RFPL in recognition of his hundredth career goal before a match against rivals Spartak Moscow, Music Hall unfurled a sheet with the words "Where are your golden bills" (Где твои золотые билли), in reference to Zenit's capture of Artyom Dzyuba from the Moscow club the previous year. It was accompanied by a large caricature of characters from Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, which became an extremely popular Soviet cartoon. Go figure.
After the end of the same game, Spartak players congratulated a Spartak fan group in St. Petersburg on their 15-year anniversary with a banner. They left the banner on the pitch, which was stolen by one brazen Zenit fan who emerged from the Virazh to retrieve the banner and wave it around in victory before being roughly tackled by stewards in the ensuing chase.
The saying on the Russian terraces dictates: "Never lose or leave your banners. If the opposition steals it it's a disgrace." The brass-necked fan from Petersburg has become a local hero since.
Access to the ground is actually easy enough, but it receives a low rating for a simple factor. It is located on a short walk from Sportivny metro station, on the city's purple number 5 line, reachable from anywhere in the city. But the ground itself is accessible only by bridge, reachable after passing through throngs of armoured police and a final ticket check gate. Parking is largely reserved for coaches and officials and Zenit head coach Andre Villas-Boas parks his white Nissan 4x4 next to the media tent. It is worth noting that Sportivnaya metro station is usually closed for at least an hour after the final whistle, prompting a half-hour walk to the UFO-shaped Gorkovskaya metro to head back into the city.
Tickets for an average game start at around 250 rubles ($3.78) but for major RPL and UEFA Champions League games could set you back as far as 4,500 rubles ($68). But the average ticket price is very reasonable when compared to most stadiums in Russia and Europe. Couple this with the sheer majesty with which the stadium sees football matches and any price is right for a trip to the Petrovsky.
Petrovsky provides a beautiful backdrop to any sporting event, which makes it such a shame that it won't be around much longer. Zenit will soon move to the Zenit Arena, a pristine, domed stadium situated on the Primorskaya embankment on the very western edge of the city. The ground for the building was broken in 2007, but nine years later the stadium is only "82 percent" finished and planned to open in December 2016.
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