ROTTERDAM, Netherlands (Reuters) - Twenty-five years after a disaster now acknowledged as the world’s worst soccer tragedy, players from Spartak Moscow and Dutch side Haarlem will meet for a memorial match at the ground where some 340 people are believed to have died.
For years, the scale of the disaster at Moscow’s Lenin Stadium — now renamed Luzhniki Stadium — was hushed up.
A Soviet inquiry initially said that 66 people had died in a crush on the stairs at the end of a 1982 UEFA Cup match between the two sides.
In 1989, an independent investigation concluded that the death toll was nearer 340.
“Years later I spoke with Andrei Chesnokov, the former tennis professional, and he told me that he was an eye witness and he saw enough bodies lined up to cover two tennis courts,” said Dutch sportswriter Edwin Struis, the man behind the initiative to stage a memorial match.
Struis said both sides planned to bring their teams of 25 years ago to the match on October 20 and that Spartak Moscow would invite relatives of the victims.
The aim, he told Reuters, was to ensure that the incident was not forgotten.
“Last October we realised that it would be 25 years ago this year and therefore knew that if we wanted to do something it had to be now,” Struis said.
“It started with e-mail contact with press officer Vladimir Shevchenko and club official Viktoria Zipidi because we didn’t know if the club was willing to cooperate but they were so enthusiastic that I traveled to Russia in January to talk things through with officials of the club.
“We were not sure how the club would react to our idea but everyone, including fans and relatives, embraced the plan.”
“We fully support the idea of organizing a benefit match, and will gladly cooperate in fulfilling this initiative,” Shevchenko said.
Struis recalls watching the match in the Netherlands, unaware of the tragedy.
“It was the biggest game in Haarlem’s 118-year history,” he said. “We watched the game at the town sports center on a big screen. Only seven years later, in 1989, did we find out what happened after the match.”
Police were blamed for the disaster after apparently channeling fans who had decided to leave early down a narrow, icy staircase.
When Spartak scored a late second goal fans tried to rush back into the stands and hundreds of people were crushed.
“More then 10,000 fans were located in one section of the stadium,” said Struis.
“Spartak was the people’s club and fans used matches to protest against the communist government.”
Chesnokov, Ruud Gullit, Guus Hiddink and Joop Alberda will be part of a committee advising the foundation “To Russia With Love” that will collect money for a gift to the relatives.
Gullit started his professional career at Haarlem and left the club in 1982 to join Feyenoord after Haarlem had achieved their sole UEFA Cup qualification by finishing fourth in the Dutch league.
Former Netherlands coach Hiddink, now coach of Russia, and Alberda, technical director of the Russian football association, will be present at the match three days after their Euro 2008 qualifier against England.
The memorial game will be played before a Russian league match between Spartak and FK Moscow.