Did that just happen?
A glance over at the scoreboard, then down below it at the group of downtrodden visiting supporters, confirm that the seemingly impossible really has taken place. It is a sensation fans of lower-league teams may have experienced, a sensation that only those fans can experience. As the capacity crowd begins to filter out, it is all we can manage to simply gaze around and soak in the closing moments of the final act of what has been an absorbing performance of pure sporting theatre.
Despite the surreal stunned silence, there it is. We, a lowly team with no international caps to speak of, have conquered the Zenit St.Petersburg of Andrei Arshavin, Axel Witsel, Neto, Domenico Criscito, Roman Shirokov, Anatoliy Tymoschuk and Oleg Shatov 2-0. Never mind that the second was a highly suspicious own goal from the teenage visiting keeper; as those international captains and Champions League winners trudge off the pitch, it is hard to take stock of what has just happened. For me this has been the culmination of a month of planning, negotiation and mental preparation, and yet despite the odd butterfly still fluttering its wings in my stomach, there is an eerie calm around us.
It is a year, almost to the day, since the last Premier League team were vanquished here in the cup. That night, a then-record attendance of around 5,000 saw a spirited performance, highlighted by Oleg Polyakov’s audacious slalom through the entire Alania Vladikavkaz defence to set up the opener, lead to a glamorous tie away to Moscow giants CSKA. Watford and Ipswich fans in particular will recognize the name of Tamas Priskin from the visitors’ squad. The dream was ended in the sodden, echoing bowl of the Luzhniki stadium by the likes of Keisuke Honda and former Manchester United winger Zoran Tosic, who strolled to a 3-0 win. Tonight, however, is even more momentous: for we have stood toe to toe with the country’s richest, most successful and most famous club, and were not found wanting.
Two years earlier, as gulls circled lazily overhead, I strolled along the impressively regenerated waterfront area. Not long ago this city had a repressive and less salubrious air about it; there is a history that not everyone has enjoyed retelling, despite the gentle reminders of a few tasteful monuments. Times had changed, however, and on a day like this you couldn’t help but feel positive. The searing heat threatened to make walking uncomfortable, but the mild breeze offered some light refreshment.
Kick-off was approaching anyway, so I made the short journey past the memorials to one of the most impressive stadia for thousands of miles. As the recently constructed ground came into sight, its unique, modern design was striking, and a sense of pride at being among the first to witness the official opening match took shape. A glance at the other spectators told me there would be a long wait before I took a seat, but it would be worth it.
This was not a visit to the futuristic Green Point Stadium in Cape Town, with the evocative Robben Island in the distance, nor was it Beijing’s bizarre ‘Birds’ Nest’ – this was the Geolog Stadium, home of FK Tyumen, in the heart of Siberia. It is a place full of surprises.
Not many would realise that temperatures in Tyumen, which lies on the same line of latitude as Inverness, can rise higher than Greece in the middle of summer. Nor might they know that according to the 2002 census there were 33 cities in Russia with a population of half a million or more, one of which is Tyumen. The 2001 UK census showed just two. In fact, if Tyumen were ranked alongside the UK’s cities today, it would boast the fourth-highest population. The oblast (region) is the largest in the country, and one of the richest in resources – the headquarters or satellite offices of many of the country’s largest and most influential oil companies are based here – and yet almost nobody outside the country has even heard of Tyumen. The Lonely Planet Guide to Russia simply says: “if you have limited time, you’d be better off seeing Tobolsk instead,” despite Tyumen being the original capital of, and the first fort established in, Siberia, and a city bursting at the seams.
Football competes with ice hockey, skiing and biathlon (cross-country skiing and rifle shooting) for the attention of sport enthusiasts in these parts; 11-a-side even plays second fiddle to indoor futsal – hardly a surprise, bearing in mind the weather. Mini Football Club (MFK) Tyumen, the futsal cousin of 11-a-side FK, reached the Russian Cup final four years ago, hosting Dinamo Moscow, and finished a highly-respectable third in the Premier League. Rubin Tyumen ice hockey side were crowned champions of the top tier of Russian ice hockey, the Vysshaya Hokkeinaya Liga, or Higher Hockey league (VHL), in the same season, and there are plans to build a 10,000 capacity stadium allowing them to apply for promotion to the Continental Hockey League (KHL), Europe’s answer to the NHL.
So perhaps it comes as no surprise that today’s match day program for FK Tyumen, costing a whopping 20 roubles (about 40 pence), proclaims the Geolog to be “the best stadium in Siberia”; there is a need to make their voice heard. After all, they are plying their trade in the Ural-Povolzhe League of the second division. Below the Premier League of CSKA Moscow and Zenit St. Petersburg, there lies the Football National League (FNL), then five regional leagues under the umbrella of the 2nd Division, making mid-table FK Tyumen roughly equal to a Skrill Premier side in stature.
The relatively nearby city of Chelyabinsk (486 kilometres from Tyumen) offered the opponents at the grand opening match. Chelyabinsk is famous for being an industrial centre of Siberia, where Stalin moved the majority of factory production in 1941 to avoid being targeted by advancing German armies, and for providing the extremely camp homosexual steelworker character to “наша Russia”, Russia’s incarnation of Little Britain. Only one team gains promotion each season from each league within the 2nd Division, and FK Chelyabinsk occupied 4th place, only 9 points off top spot, so they had more at stake than the home side, who were sitting in mid-table obscurity. Due to the queuing problems (only two ticket office ladies were on duty for a crowd of 2,500) I missed the first two goals, and apparently most of the quality from the first half. My wife was enjoying her first ever live game of football, and was understandably more entertained by winger Sergei Volosyan’s amusing air kick, and the largely incoherent ramblings of the drunk supporter to our right, than by the standard of the football itself.
The sweltering Siberian summer (no, seriously) led to both sides adopting a careful, tentative approach in a bid to conserve energy, with a disappointing number of high balls forward from the visitors. More pleasing was Tyumen’s classic lower-league 4-4-2 formation, complete with a big man/little man combination up front. The hosts’ attempts to use their wingers served them well at times, although all too often they were left isolated with no support. Given the enormous distances teams have to travel, even in the regional leagues, a point away from home against most teams is a real bonus, so the packed 5-man midfield of FK Chelyabinsk came as no surprise.
Half time offered a chance to pay a closer inspection to the facilities. Bearing in mind that today’s attendance of 2,500 is inflated due to the opening, the capacity of 13,052 seems a little excessive. Adjacent to the main stadium is a training ground for the 1st team and the reserves, which also serves as the regional centre of excellence, with its own quaint stand holding no more than 200, but with an equally impressive all-weather surface, similar to the Luzhniki where Russia applied one sizeable nail to the coffin of Steve McLaren’s tenure as England manager in 2007. The stands of smooth marble and gleaming metal gave off an air of opulence that seemed out of synch with the standard on show, but it was fun to be treated to what was effectively non-league football in surroundings every bit as luxurious as the Camp Nou or the Bernabeu. Half-time refreshments were served by a hunched babushka behind a rickety trestle table at one entrance, and consisted of tea sachets, a large thermos dispensing hot water and a microwave for frozen pizzas, so I gave it a miss. Behind one goal there was a huge scoreboard screen that puts Old Trafford’s to shame playing the match in real time, and as with many overseas stadia, a running track surrounding the pitch. Rather pointlessly, there was also a cordon of armed police guarding the pitch; the passive crowd was more interested in hurling abuse at the referee than actually staging a violent protest of any kind.
Locked at 1-1, the two teams played out an uneventful first half hour of the second half, before a bundled corner routine found its way in off home defender Aleksandr Korotkov for a scrappy, undeserved but vital goal for FK Chelyabinsk with ten minutes remaining. However, deep into injury time, Tyumen’s six-foot-three Stanislav Prokofeev produced a sublime moment that Thierry Henry would have been proud of. Sending his marker the wrong way, he flicked the ball between both of their legs, span past the hapless centre-half to meet the ball and smash home an extraordinary finish to wrap up a quite ordinary match.
Prokofeev had recently returned to the club after a period playing in the lofty heights of the FNL (where Baltika, from the enclave city of Kaliningrad tucked between Poland and Lithuania, travel over 10,000 kilometres to away games in Vladivostok – the equivalent of Arsenal jetting off to Bolivia for a league match) and was welcomed back as the badly-needed prodigal son. His return has come none too soon, given the lacklustre standard in this league, the wildly changing conditions that prevent flowing football, and the disappointingly sparse crowds. Think Altrincham playing at Old Trafford, and you get the picture.
Over the last few years, Russian football has also been blighted by well-publicised incidents of racist abuse. From an outsider’s point of view, this might be slightly surprising given the ever-growing number of African and Latin American players in the Russian league system. The BBC reported in December two years ago about fans ofZenit St Petersburg who had sent an open letter requesting their board to not sign any black or gay players as they were “thrust down their throats” and “unworthy of their great city”. Even two-time Olympic gold medal-winning polevaulter ElenaIsinbaeva caused a stir when her comments about controversial laws governing the distribution of information about homosexuality to minors were widely reported. Yaya Toure is unfortunately only the latest in a long list of players to have complained about receiving racist abuse in Russia, despite almost every team in the Russian Premier League employing black footballers.
However, it is myopic and unfair to simply label Russian fans as backward and bigoted. Yes, a lot of progress needs to be made to bring this huge nation in line with modern sensibilities and attitudes, but it must be remembered that until 20 years ago, very little outside influence was allowed to pass through the borders. Without having had the free exchange of cultures and understanding for the majority of the 20th century that many western countries now enjoy, one simply cannot expect the same level of awareness and acceptance. A form of the “n word” is used in the Russian language that is genuinely not intended as an offensive term; but then it wasn’t so long ago that the term “coloured” was in common use in the UK. It was only in May when a banana was thrown at Dani Alves in La Liga. It is not a matter of national character; it is a matter of time to learn, to develop and to adapt.
Following the decision to award Russia the 2018 World Cup, and rumours that some of the stadia due to be used are behind schedule, all eyes will return to this vast nation before long. While the Brazilian organizing committee have struggled in vain to deflect attention away from the mass protests on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, and to assuage fears of safety and infrastructure for the samba party this summer, Russia has only a brief period out of the footballing spotlight before it too must face up to its own potential shortcomings in staging the World Cup. This should mean more transparency, stricter governance and hopefully higher interest, both in the media and financially, in the Russian game. For Russian sport as a whole it is an exciting time, with the Sochi Winter Olympics earlier this year, the Russian Grand Prix in October, and the IRB Rugby World Cup Sevens and Athletics World Championships last year. This is a country that specializes in surprises, so expect the unexpected. Just don’t forget your suncream.
Since the 2011-2012 season the entire Russian league system has been realigned with its European counterparts, and due to the enforced lengthy winter break, a higher proportion of matches are now played in the summer. This, along with the prospect of the biggest tournament in the world arriving soon, has helped reverse the trend of diminishing attendance figures, even if the sight of Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool replica shirts are still far more common than those of local teams. The downside is that we have a strange situation; now, managers only have about six weeks to assemble their squads in pre-season, whereas the inevitable winter break is almost six months long for 2nd division teams.
Despite this frustrating picture, times could be changing for the better. When Manchester United began their treble-winning season, FK Tyumen were a Russian Premier League side, and the season before the move into the newly renovated stadium they were agonizingly close to promotion to the FNL, missing out to Prokofeev’s former club Gazovik Orenburg. And of course there was the sparkle of those two enthralling cup runs.
Finally, in June, promotion was achieved on the back of some fabulous, if inconsistent, flowing football. A nerve-shredding end to the season saw what was effectively a winner-takes-all showdown away at Prokofeev’s then club Volga Ulyanovsk, resulting in a solid 2-0 win for Tyumen. Manager Konstantin Galkin, a former manager of Volga, Gazovik and Chelyabinsk, had gathered a wonderfully gifted group of ball-playing midfielders, and in his understated way, had started to form a fluid 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation that is very pleasing on the eye, but at times frustrating in its lack of discipline.
Last season’s Ural-Povolzhe top scorer by some distance with 21 goals to his nearest challenger’s 11, and former FK Tyumen stalwart, Dmitry Zarva, has been added to boost a limited forward line. The short pre-season however has seen some key players leave, and their replacements are yet to have time to settle into the system. In the opening home fixture of this season, which in another quirk of fate pitted Tyumen against old foes Gazovik Orenburg, the cavalier do-or-die attacking intent on show hinted towards an entertaining brave new future for the club.
To borrow a well-used line, Tyumen have walked with kings, but for now, haven’t lost the common touch.