Rostov-on-Don's raki tradition a highlight as visitors roll into the city
Editor's Note: This is the fifth in a series of essays profiling all of the cities set to host World Cup games this summer. Eliot Rothwell visited every one to get a sense of how preparations were going and what the mood was like ahead of the tournament.
ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia -- On weekends, the city's young people gather at Golodranets, a bar just a couple of blocks from the city's cathedral. They order beer from local breweries, served against a backdrop of exposed brickwork, glazed wooden upholstery and metal piping. It's a scene common across Europe, reminiscent of bars in Berlin or London. A few people stand outside, to escape from the packed interior or to smoke cigarettes. The regulars are from all corners of the city: artists, construction workers, designers, engineers, students or those struggling to find work.
I was brought to the bar by Egor Nechesov, a videographer with FC Rostov, the local football team. Earlier in the evening I sent him a message. He replied, instantly, asking: "Where are you now? What are you doing?" I told him, expecting to arrange a time and place to meet. A couple of minutes later, his car pulled up outside, decorated with a few stickers of FC Rostov's heroes. Like many Russians, Egor was keen to direct a foreign visitor to the best spots in the city.
The country's culture of hospitality, though sometimes stifling, often means that locals are prepared to go to great lengths for guests. In smaller cities, especially, Russians feel bound to show foreigners a good time.
In Rostov, this sharing culture dominates one of the great local traditions: raki. Across Russia, Rostov is famous for these little red crayfish. In the city's heaving market, the day's fresh catch rub up against each other in large tanks. Restaurateurs barter with vendors, hoping to stock up their supplies on the cheap. At night, locals gather at their favourite rakovaya, a type of restaurant dedicated to raki. The crustaceans are boiled or fried and laid down in the middle of the table on a bed of vegetables.
The idea is to share and help one another tear apart the small bodies. The food, washed down with deep glasses of local beer, is the centrepiece but the camaraderie glues the tradition together. Raki offers a chance to mull over recent events or make plans for the future. It helps Rostov's people to affirm their city's identity.
Across the Don river, away from the centre of the city, two highways flank the Rostov Arena. Egor drove me there on a Friday night in April. The stadium was just about finished, a 45,000-capacity dome built for the World Cup. As part of their preparations, the city's World Cup committee remodeled the surrounding areas into a park and public walkway, planting trees and building benches to welcome the summer influx of fans.
Rostov Arena is the new home to FC Rostov after years in the tiny confines of the 16,000-capacity Olimp-2 Stadium. Things have been difficult for the local club of late after a couple of years of delirious joy. In 2015-16, Rostov became known in some parts as the "Russian Leicester." Their rise paralleled that of the English club. The season before they were almost relegated, surviving a drop by winning a playoff. A remarkable season saw them challenge for the title but they were overtaken by CSKA Moscow in the closing weeks of the season.
Despite their disappointment, Rostov earned a place in the Champions League. They were drawn against Anderlecht in the qualifying rounds and won, then went on to beat Ajax and book a spot in the group stage. In the tournament proper, Rostov were drawn against Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich and PSV Eindhoven. The games were tough but Rostov fans didn't care. Nobody expected them to progress. It was enough to see Europe's elite come to the south of Russia.
When Bayern came to town, fans gobbled up tickets. People slept in cars in front of the Olimp-2 Stadium, desperate to be first in line. Old women hung blue and yellow scarves from windows and the city crackled with excitement. Again, Rostov won, completing the most improbable victory of all, defeating Bayern 3-2 thanks to a whipped Christian Noboa free kick.
In the city, people joke that hundreds of babies were conceived that night. Long into the early hours people stayed out, honking car horns and singing songs. Aleksei Tarasyuk, a regular at Golodranets and at Rostov games, told me nothing would ever compare. "We'll never see it again", he said. "You take these memories to the grave."
In the next game, they took a draw against PSV, sealing third in the group and passage through to the Europa League where they defeated Sparta Prague, passing through to the next round against Manchester United. Rostov lost in the end, crashing out of the competition, but for the fans it didn't matter too much. They savour the moments, the trips, the memories. "Manchester United in Rostov. Our city. Manchester United," Aleksei said. "F---. It was crazy. Who cares how it ended?"
The European hangover, though, was difficult to endure. Rostov had to reacclimate to normalcy after two years of fantasy. Most of the European heroes left. Many of them rejoined Kurban Berdyev (who had gone back to Rubin Kazan), getting the band back together. But the new stadium offered some excitement, even if the opening game was against SKA Khabarovsk.
It was a big event in the city. On the Sunday in April, the day of the game, people in blue and yellow filled the city's bars and cafes. They took pictures with Rostov scarfs and many Rostov fans made a full day of it. They met early, the first toasts and shots of vodka dedicated to their team. They ate course after course, starting with borscht and then moving on to the weightier meat or fish courses, soaking it up with black bread and lashed down with more shots of vodka.
Before the match, I met Maksim Kadaev, a journalist with the local edition of Komsomolskaya Pravda. He was wearing a yellow Rostov polo shirt, unafraid to show his loyalties in the press box that afternoon.
"People here love football", he told ESPN FC, "it's a huge plus. I'm absolutely sure that people in Rostov will come to watch the team whatever happens. We have a great, very strong footballing tradition".
I asked him whether any of it would be lost as the club moved out of its ancestral home, the Olimp-2. I expected some nostalgia for Rostov's European nights, but Maksim didn't have any.
For all the pre-match hubbub, only 12,736 fans passed through the turnstiles for the opener. Most of the 45,000 seats were left empty, victims of Rostov's recent form and the opposition, SKA, who are located over 8,700km away, in Khabarovsk. Those that did turn up were treated to a 2-0 win, an important victory. Rostov secured their top-flight status only on the final day of the season, in May, avoiding a relegation playoff. Safe in the Russian Premier League, Rostov fans can now look to next season, when they can create memories in their new home to sit alongside the blissful recollections of Bayern Munich and Manchester United.
In the city, things will continue as they always have. Young people will spend their weekend nights at Golodranets. The older population will set up their Sunday market stalls. Visitors will lose themselves in the grid system. As Maksim Kadaev said: "It's important to save what we have here".
Eliot is a European football writer with a special interest in Eastern Europe. Twitter @EliotRothwell.