Now the Russkis sing and shout like the rest of us

Fourteen years ago, my wife and I got invited to Russia by the Russian Writers Union. They wanted a writing family to have a holiday with Russian writers and their families at Pitsunda on the Black Sea. We took our younger daughter, Flora, then aged 12. The hotel was an awful concrete block, with awful food, and the day we arrived Gorbachev banned alcohol. Did I moan.

We also had a week in Moscow, which was fascinating. They'd asked in advance what we'd like to see. I said definitely no opera or tractor farms. What I wanted most of all was to go to a football match. So they arranged it, even laid on a Chaika limousine to take us there, one of those monster black numbers that leading comrades ponced around in.

It was Moscow Spartak against Moscow Torpedo in the Lenin stadium. The programme was only ten kopeks, about 10p, just two sheets, printed on what looked like wartime lavatory paper. I still have it. One of my football treasures. A memory of one of the weirdest games I've ever witnessed.

The military were everywhere, watching every supporter, in case they got out of line. There were no scarves, no singing, no cheering, just a bit of clapping for a good bit of play and whistling in derision for any mistake. At the end, we all filed out slowly, section by section, watched suspiciously by the military, while a giant screen showed a comedy cartoon. I presumed this was to distract the fans and keep them quiet.

Fourteen years later, I was really looking forward to watching Moscow Spartak again. As I walked to Highbury, I wondered how many of their fans would turn up. Must be pretty expensive, getting from Moscow to London for a match.

I was at Arsenal's two previous European Champions League games at Highbury. The German fans of Bayern Munich, about 5,000 of them, were brilliant, sang all the way through, often in English, good-humouredly taking the piss out of the Arsenal fans.

There were just as many French fans for the Lyons game. They were also terrific, really got behind their team, but didn't sing quite as loudly as the Germans. And they stuck to French. So badly educated, these Frogs, not like our cosmopolitan Arsenal fans. Oh yes, they often sing in French. "Tee-erry onree, Tee-erry onree." There, that's four French words for a start.

I caught sight of my first Russians about two streets from the ground. A Russian babe in her late thirties who looked like Pamela Anderson's poorer sister, only able to afford cheap cosmetic surgery, was tottering on high heels in the middle of the road. She held a camera and was taking a photo of her bloke. He was a heavy, aged about 50, in a camel coat, with a big cigar and Mafia-like leer. He had his fat arm around a policewoman who very sportingly was smiling for the camera.

At the ground itself, I was surprised to see a decent-sized queue for the away-supporters' entrance. There were about 500 Spartak fans, most of them wearing scarves, shouting and singing. Just like Germans, French, Brits or fans anywhere.

We all took some Russian lessons, 14 years ago. Flora was excellent, but I managed only a few phrases: thank you, hello, goodbye, your caviar is very good and where is the wine. The phrases are still in my head, but I can't remember what they mean.

I went down the queue and asked if anyone spoke English. A tall bloke of about 30 said he did, so we chatted away. He expected 2,000 Spartak supporters in all, half from Moscow, the others from France and Germany. He was from Moscow, where he worked as an office manager. He'd paid $600 for his trip.

As I was talking to him, a rather posh English bloke with a girl of about eight came up and started asking questions of my new Russian friend. Do you mind, I said. Find your own rotten Russki.

"I am a journalist," he said. Same here, I replied. Ace football columnist for the New Statesman, so buzz off.

He was the editor of Prospect. It's a rather classy publication, but I don't think it has a football column. OK then, I said, you can join in.

As we got near the top of the queue, we could see that all the Russians were being searched on entry. Our Russian friend put his hands in his pockets and pulled out a four-pack of Budweiser and handed them to me and the Prospect man. He was about to take one and I stopped him. Don't be mean, I said. You hold on to them, Russki: you might be able to sneak one in. If not, you can get them back afterwards.

We all shook hands, wished each other the best of luck in the game. I walked over to the Upper West Stand entrance, expecting my Prospect friend to follow me. He said he hadn't got a seat. He lived locally and had just come out with his daughter to wander around, watch the crowds, soak up the atmosphere.

An interesting sign of the times. Euro games have become like street festivals. You wouldn't be scared to take along your granny. There is a camaraderie in football that gets forgotten whenever there's a nasty incident.

So it's been great this season, with all the Euro games. I've loved watching them, in the flesh or on the box. And haven't the English clubs done well? So far.

I am writing this on Monday, as ever, which is so annoying. Each week I think what a fool I'll look if Becks has a blinder, having slagged him off.

So as I write, I don't know whether it will be dosvedanya to Man U, Arsenal and Liverpool in Europe, but I hope not. Or whether dosvedanya means goodbye, hello or thank you. One of those, anyway . . .

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Trapped in the human zoo