The Zimbru Stadium is one of Moldova’s most modern stadiums. When I visited Zimbru Chisinau were still able to relish in their past–these days, not so much. Zimbru (named after a species of European Bison) were a force–as much as a “force” as a Moldovan team can be, anyhow–in the Soviet league. That success carried on into the Moldovan league as they won eight of the first nine Moldovan championships, with their last coming in 2009. The last 13 seasons have seen leaner years, with just three Moldovan Cups to their name and no league triumphs.
I visited in the summer of 2007, and their 10,400 capacity UEFA and FIFA approved stadium was far and away the best stadium I visited in Chisinau–the other examples I saw were the Dinamo Stadium and the Republican Stadium. After a lengthy struggle against the language barrier I was able to find a Zimbru Chisinau shirt, the story of which–written for a college travel writing class–is below, followed by a few shots of the stadium:
The Other Side of Europe:
I walked through the streets of Chişinău, in Moldova, attempting to find the Zimbru stadium. According to my Lonely Planet guide’s map, the stadium was just four kilometers away—a distance which could easily be negotiated on foot. I walked through the main streets and back allieys of the capital of Europe’s poorest country. The avenues were dominated by Soviet-style apartment blocks and small fledgling businesses run out of ground level apartments—like cellular telephone companies—which popped up throughout Eastern Europe following the fall of communism. Luckily for me, the streets of Chişinău were laid out in a grid formation—typical of cities throughout the former Soviet Union. It was, in their minds at least, the ultimate triumph of modern society—homogenous, defined by right angles to mirror their own rigid thinking.
As I walked, it soon became apparent that I was lost as I had come to a dead end. I decided that it was best to ask the locals which way to the stadium. I quickly spotted a couple of young, good-looking Moldovan girls (I figured if they were young and good-looking, they were trustworthy—it was not as shallow as it sounds) and asked them the directions. After a few giggles they showed me the way. I forgave them for laughing, after all it must have been a bit odd to have an American ask for directions to a soccer stadium in a forgotten Soviet hinterland. All things considered, is America not the only country in the world that does not eat, sleep, and breathe soccer?
As I walked on I came to realize that Lonely Planet’s measuring was more than a little off—the stadium was not four kilometers away. I elected to duck into a Lukoil gas station—living proof of continued Russian dominance over the country long after the collapse of the Soviet Union sixteen years ago.
The lady at the gas station was a living example of Moldovan hospitality. Despite her lack of English, she gladly called a cab and told them that I needed to go to the Zimbru stadium. Soon, a young man drove up in a dilapidated Dacia (the Romanian car that borrowed its body style and technology from the old Renault 12 model—if Western Europe had the Renault, then Eastern Europe had its answer, the Dacia).
Soon we were zipping through the streets of Chişinău, the driver relaxed in typical cabbie style, with just two fingers on the shifter, alternating between third and fourth gears only, more than a little fast on the crowded streets of this relatively small capital city. I tried to ask him a bit about himself, but he did not know too much English. All I needed to know about his life I was soon able to infer, as he asked for just two dollars for the ten-minute cab ride. I tipped him three dollars, one hundred and fifty percent, grateful that he had gotten me to my destination that was, apparently, quite obscure.
I stepped out of the cab, with the June sun high in the sky, a fitting lazy early summer afternoon. I looked at the stadium, which looked like it belonged in the middle of Western Europe. The colors of its walls shone brightly, lightening up the area. Most stadiums in Eastern Europe are dilapidated, worn by years of games and conflicts between rival fans. During the years of the Iron Curtain, soccer stadiums were often the only place where people could free themselves of the authoritarian chains which bound them.
This stadium, however was different, a far cry from the depressing communist tenements that it was surrounded by, harkening back to an era defined by the utopian ideals of communal housing. The stadium was shiny and modern, the team’s colors of green and yellow stood out like wildflowers at the end of winter. I quickly made my way to the gates of the grounds, where I was met by three Moldovan men enjoying their lazy summer afternoon watching the sprinklers water the grass like suburban men in Anytown, U.S.A. All that was missing, it seemed, was ice tea in their hands and a porch to sit on.
One man understood me, and gestured for me to follow him onto the grounds. I followed him through the courtyard of the team’s office building, with the practice fields on our left, and the stadium proper on our right. Suddenly, as I had become engrossed in the scenery, the man grabbed my arm. He had stopped me, ensuring that I did not walk into the wall of water the sprinkler was now depositing on the walkway, as it was turned onto its rotating setting. I appreciated this, as being wet, in clothes, is one of the worst feelings in the world for me.
Soon we walked into the club’s building, with posters on the wall, depicting teams of a bygone era. Zimbru had once been the pride of Moldova, when they represented this small Soviet outpost in the old Soviet Leagues. There they competed against more illustrious teams from Kiev, Moscow, and Saint Petersburg, as well as those from even farther flung places like Tashkent and Vladivostok. Now they were just another team from an obscure European country, mentioned by the few who knew of them in the same breath as AS Jeunesse-Esch of Luxembourg, or Dinamo Tirana of Albania. Zimbru were, like the people of the country they represented, just a casualty of wider geopolitical forces out of their control, and far from their comprehension.
I was taken upstairs, into a brand new office, where women in Western-style business suits were answering phone calls. They would not have been out of place in an investing firm on Wall Street. I explained to the woman who was in charge that I wanted a shirt from Zimbru. She was more than a little bit surprised. She took out three shirts from a drawer—obviously, they did not sell often. I picked out one of them, and tried it on in the bathroom. Later, she told me that I was probably the only one in America who would have that shirt, and the only one in Moldova too for that matter.
I had figured it would be the case. I took out my Moldovan Lei to pay for the shirt, the image of Stefan Cel Mare—a Moldavian prince famous for defending Moldavia from the Ottomans in the late fifteenth century—staring back at me. I asked the woman why it was that it was so hard to find any soccer shirts in Moldova. Her reply was to be expected. She said that because the shirts were seventy dollars—the average price for a soccer shirt anywhere in the world—no one could afford that price. I gravely nodded upon hearing this, as it was Moldova is the poorest country in Europe. Later, I looked up the average monthly wage in Moldova. It was a staggering 129 dollars. And here I was buying a shirt that was more than half of what the average Moldovan makes in a year. Here I was with a shirt that the vast majority of people I would meet could never even dream of owning, with eighty percent of the country below the poverty line.
I thanked the lady and left. On the way out the men who had let me into the building smiled and waved, asking if I had gotten my shirt. I smiled and said yes, thanking them profusely for their help. I knew that they would probably never have the opportunity to own the teams shirt. I also, however, knew that they probably did not want one either.
On a continent well known for Paris chic, Milanese fashion, and Viennese cafes, the Zimbru Stadium was a sobering reminder that there are parts of the continent that many Westerners are not aware of. It all lies on the other side of Europe, far from the glitz of Barcelona and the glamour of Brussels.