WORDS: ROBERT DILLON
Russia is still the Churchillian enigma of old, still barely fathomable to the Western mind, but for this Englishman, there is a certain appeal to the diverse cultures and cities represented in the Russian football leagues. In the image of the statue of Mother Russia overlooking the crumbling stadium of a faltering Rotor Volgograd, a student from Grimsby found his own, imperfect footballing Mecca…
Different people enjoy different things – this is a fact of life. Another fact of life is that not many people take great delight in Russian football.
I, on the other hand, am on the verge of obsession. I write about it extensively, for fun. So why? Indeed, not even the Russians are that bothered for the most part. In a statistic which is shocking for a country due to host the World Cup in 2018, more than half of the Russian Premier League teams boast an average attendance less than half the capacity of their home stadium. What makes this even more surprising is the fact that many of these grounds are far from spectacular to begin with – with the exception of Spartak, who play at the cavernous Luzhniki, there are only four teams who play their matches in front of 30,000 seats. Two of them share the same stadium.
Lower down the leagues of course, the problem is exacerbated. Shinnik Yaroslavl, once a top-flight team, now struggling in the second tier, are in line for stadium renovation which will expand their capacity to something close to 45,000 in time for the FIFA tournament. Their average gate is less than 10 per cent of that figure, and Shinnik are by no means an exceptional case.
So, why would someone like me adopt the Russian cause? I was born in Grimsby, took Arsenal as my team at an early age, thanks to Subbuteo, and moved to Sheffield to continue my education. Neither of my parents have any particular interest in the country, and certainly not in its football – there are precisely no logical steps.
Yet, as is so often the case, that special combination of Football Manager and human curiosity overcomes logic in so many ways. The year was 2007, the team was SKA-Energia Khabarovsk, and after my usual research on being allocated a random team, the allure of bringing the Champions League trophy to the Chinese border gripped me intensely. Nothing came of it, but I still remember that save today – a mere six seasons, a single promotion to the Premier to my name – and the seed was sown.
Fast forward a few months to the summer of 2008 and a period of great change. Preparing to head to university – to study History and Russian, a decision made purely out of academic curiosity – the final few weeks of home comforts were spent in front of Euro 2008, the year that Spain finally broke their international drought with Fernando Torres’ goal over Germany in the final.
Yet the story of that tournament was not Spain, but a team that they had crushed not once, but twice on the way to success. It seemed that everybody that year had a soft spot for the Russians, at least after beating the tedious Greeks and upsetting the Swedes to trail Spain out of their group. The 4-1 hammering that they took from the Spaniards in their opening game only seemed to help their cause.
It was in the quarter final that they came to life. Faced with a Holland side which had so easily disposed of World Cup finalists Italy and France in the group stage, everything was set up for the Dutch to knock fellow countryman Guus Hiddink out of the competition with ease. This was a Dutch side featuring the likes of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart in full flow, with the luxury of Arjen Robben on the bench. In the Russian squad, only Ivan Saenko plied his trade outside the country of his birth, and even then for a Nuremburg side just relegated from the German Bundesliga. On paper, it was a mismatch of epic proportions.
As we all know, however, football is not played on paper. From the outset Russia poured forward, not letting their more illustrious opponents settle into their rhythm. Roman Pavlyuchenko’s 56th minute goal looked to have caused a deserved shock, but Van Nistelrooy popped up with a leveller four minutes from time to force an extra half hour.
Extra time, much like the first 90 minutes, was the Andrei Arshavin show. Zenit’s diminutive playmaker wreaked havoc on Holland, first setting up Dmitri Torbinsky and then grabbing a third for himself. It was a perfect individual performance set against a fine team display and, although Hiddink’s men would go on to suffer another three-goal reverse against Spain in the semis, it was enough. The strange names, the unknown clubs, the fluid passing and grandeur of the anthem – I was hooked.
For the next period of my life, the seeds lay dormant. Learning the Russian language was hard enough, let alone investing myself in its sport. Even so, little moments should have shown me that something greater was at work – hearing the word ‘Zhemchuzhina’ in a class, for example, and beaming with delight at being able to tell my fellow students exactly what it meant. The Pearl of Sochi was another side to suffer my FM talents.
The roots were deep enough, though, and by my third year of university they were about to bear fruit. As with the vast majority of language degrees, the third year is spent abroad and so it was off to Russia I went, full of excitement and apprehension, first to Yaroslavl and then on to Volgograd – after all, I couldn’t pass up the chance to live in Stalingrad, and I could always see Moscow and St Petersburg at some other time.
Yaroslavl, and the aforementioned Shinnik, saw the first real signs, although the city’s obsession with ice hockey slowed the process. Still, the closing matches of Shinnik’s season were marked by a small English following, the side struggling to deal with relegation the previous season and finishing mid-table. I remember the first match perfectly.
First of all, our seats were next to a small band of maybe two dozen away supporters. At first this seems pathetic (for the Russian First Division it is perfectly respectable), until you consider that the opponents for the day were Luch-Energia Vladivostok, the easternmost team in the league based thousands of miles away, approximately a week’s journey by train. With their bright yellow kits, drum-banging and endless singing, this was dedication.
They would leave empty-handed, nothing but the respect of the home fans to their name, after a Shinnik win. In the setting September sun, Luch were awarded two penalties – the first to put them ahead, the second to tie the game at 2-2. The home goalkeeper dived for neither. With time running out, Shinnik won a free kick in the visitors’ half. The ball was swung in, the goalkeeper came and missed his punch and, in what seemed like slow motion, the ball was headed goalwards, crossing the line at snail’s pace. The sparsely scattered crowd went ballistic in celebration, captain Roman Voidel the subject of adulation after his second goal of the day.
I realised over the course of that game and my second – a drab goalless draw watched from the VIP stand after a classmate pulled some strings – that despite the relatively poor standard of football, despite the team’s annoying tendency to get pinned down against the touchline and the shocking standard of officiating, that there was something different. In England, football is a hostile sport, fans mock tragedy and spend their time dreaming up insults for the opposing supporters. The referee is to blame for everything.
In Russia the atmosphere is altogether different. Yes, each club has its own variety of ‘ultras,’ the most notorious of which have caused violence on a huge scale in Moscow and St Petersburg. But in Yaroslavl the chants were simple (my personal favourite the beautifully obvious ‘We need a goal’), the passion was genuine and the men on the field were completely unrecognisable for the rest of the week. People knew their names, but they lived ordinary lives. Of course, in the country’s top sides this could not be further from the truth – Samuel Eto’o and his Bugatti Veyron spring to mind – but the honesty of it all was plain to see.
In Volgograd, this was confirmed. Somewhere along the way, Rubin had held Barcelona to a draw in the Champions League and Anzhi Makhachkala had gone from nobodies to billionaires, signing Roberto Carlos up for the ride. All of a sudden, Russian football was going places.
It was only natural, then, for me to take in a game in Volgograd. But the local team were not just any club – this was Rotor Volgograd, who had once knocked Manchester United out of Europe, despite Peter Schmeichel scoring. This was Rotor Volgograd, who had pushed the all-conquering Spartak Moscow side of the Nineties all the way on several occasions. This was Rotor Volgograd, a proud club in the city that won the Second World War, reduced to a side in a crumbling stadium, playing regional football.
Their fall, due to licensing reasons which were mainly financial, is comparable to that of Leeds United. A huge club, one of the biggest outside the two major cities, floundering in the third tier. Unlike Leeds, there were plenty of fans who left – in the season I watched part of, the average gate of just 6,000 was the largest in the division at around 20 per cent of capacity.
In fairness, Rotor could not have taken many more fans, their dilapidated Tsentralny fortress boasting a huge hole in one stand, unsafe terracing in the away end – never used by more than five or six fans – and a sports hall at the other, where we would spend our Sunday evenings being pummelled by ex-youth players in five-a-side matches. Everybody piled into the one stand still fit for purpose, and the action on the pitch was a welcome distraction from the inevitable sunburn that came from sitting out in 40 degree heat.
Rotor’s on-field antics alone did not convert me, but they certainly played a part. A wondergoal from fully 40 yards netted by a substitute holding man, the laughable attempts of Pavel Veretennikov – son of assistant manager, hometown hero and all-time Premier League top scorer Oleg – to justify his selection and the mixture of sublime passing vision and geriatric fitness of playmaker Maxim Primak will all remain a crucial part of my time in Russia.
The bulk of the work was done in the stands, however. Setting down newspaper on the seats to avoid the age-old dirt and avoiding the sunflower seed shells being subconsciously spat from all directions is part of every Russian football club, but the setting at Rotor is something else entirely. Looking over the crumbling behemoth of a stadium, against the mighty Volga river in the distance, stands Mother Russia herself, a commemorative statue taller than Liberty, sword brandished against the invaders, wielding her weapon against the visiting team from Mamaev Kurgan. Inspirational is not the word.
I left Russia an unbeaten fan, neither Shinnik nor Rotor tasting defeat in the handful of games I had managed to attend. Whilst Yaroslavl turned me on to ice hockey, bringing about an affiliation with the tragic Lokomotiv side so brilliantly reborn, Volgograd provided me with a team I could follow from afar, regular online checks determining their progress.
Rotor are my Russian club and, at the moment, a successful one – they won their regional title that year and now average just under 10,000 fans in the First Division, comfortably the best attended club in the league – but it was not just the blue-shirted men in Volgograd that grabbed my attention.
The Russian game, whether it be a first round cup tie between Rotor and the team from down the road (Energia Volzhsky, it ended 1-0) or a ferocious flare-filled Moscow derby between Spartak and CSKA, is a different animal. By Russia’s very nature, it has no other choice. When a fan burst into the theme tune to Spongebob Squarepants midway through a Rotor game, it was settled.
The historian in me loves the stories behind the teams, the struggle for supremacy in Soviet times between the army clubs of CSKA, Dinamo’s dark arts of the secret police and the people’s representatives of Spartak; the names of Lev Yashin and Eduard Streltsov. The adventurer in me sees lower league tables and dreams of what Ufa, Tambov and Krasnoyarsk must look like, how their teams fit in with the local culture. The romantic in me looks at the likes of Alania, Terek and Rubin, and admires how a simple football team can represent an entire people, oppressed for centuries by the Moscow centre and fighting back on the football field.
The truth is that my own romantic image of much of Russian football is precisely that – an image of my own creation, an ideal picture painted with a hint of historical accuracy and an overactive imagination. But the more I see the full picture – the more I hear, read and see for myself, the more it confirms what I already know. Russia is still the Churchillian enigma of old, still barely fathomable to the Western mind. But even if I can’t breach the barricades, break down the old Iron Curtain and embrace a social and footballing culture that remains so different to our own, you certainly won’t be able to stop me trying.