I’ve never been the lithest of athletes – think Gary Pallister’s rosy puffing cheeks after two minutes – but this was something else. The centre-forward on the sun-drenched pitch in front of me was, in the kindest possible way, fat; the neck rolls and potruding stomach were sprouting forth from around the edges of his awfully fitted shirt, and as if to flick a nonchalant two fingers at professionalism, a cigarette clung on to his lips as it burned gradually to the filter. To say this guy didn’t care would be an understatement, although this was a world and a half away from the rebellious cool of James Dean. Shrek, as my wife rather accurately nicknamed him, was strutting his less than graceful stuff as the central sporting commemorations on the most important day in the Russian Calendar, Victory Day, playing the world’s most popular sport, football, but everything just felt surreal.
Russia of course will host the FIFA World Cup in only three years, but I am a slightly worried about the reception it will get. Not from the outside world, which will no doubt be dominated by the racism-and-homphobia rhetoric throughout, but from the locals themselves. The success of a tournament depends on the enthusiasm and passion of the host’s citizens as much as anything, and as Shrek himself demonstrated a few years ago, there is a curious relationship Russians have with the sport. If you were to attend a football match in what English people would consider the reasonably-sized city of Tyumen, where I live, you would be treated to a futuristic design, marbled floors, chrome bannisters, huge screens, and a sweeping, open-plan Premier League-standard stadium capable of holding 13,050 spectators. The one notable omission, however, would be actual people.
Let’s put this in perspective. Tyumen is a city of at least 700,000 inhabitants, and the nearest major urban area, or at least one with a professional football team, is Ekaterinburg, about the distance from Manchester to London away. Competition for fans, one would assume, shouldn’t be a problem. FC Tyumen have a fascinating, undulating and unique history, and currently reside in the national second tier with a Brazilian magician, Cleyton, on loan from Académica in Portugal. Average attendances, however, have hovered around the 1,500 mark, and the most inspiring chant translates as “We need a goal!”. As the kids would say nowadays, ‘Facepalm’…
Participation is a slightly more complex area to dissect. For obvious reasons, eleven-a-side football is impractical for most of the year, so futsal is a very prominent sport, both from spectating and playing points of view. In fact, MFC Tyumen are one of the strongest teams in the Russian Super League, while Sinara Ekaterinburg won the futsal equivalent of the Champions League a few years ago. I make the pilgrimage to the neighbouring village of Burovskiy, a town founded near the end of the war, most weekends to play with students and friends, and although my contribution is, ahem, not spectacular, the level of the Russians who run rings around me is impressive. Their insistence on the strictest professional rules being adhered is both comical and laudable in equal measures; you would not believe the endless ‘grannies’ meetings’ held over what exactly constitutes five yards, but their passion for the shortened form of the game is clear.
The facilities are basic but sufficient, and we love them, despite the god-awful stench from the strange toilet and the original 1940s showers overrun by limescale. Even in a fairly nondescript place a few kilometres outside a city, this gym hall is only part of a fully-equipped sports centre with a swimming pool, Russian ‘banya’ and gymnastics hall. The provisions for pursuing athletic past times is impressive; a throwback to the Soviet era of mass participation and physical fitness. The ethos of taking part is still alive and well, so the issue is not on the playing side of football.
So what IS the problem? Last year’s exasperated FC Tyumen marketting manager told me “Tyumen is just not a football city” when trying to explain the lack of support for such a popular sport. I don’t see this as being the case, though; I believe it is more to do with the nationwide apathy to their own ‘stars’. Hockey is more broadly followed when it comes to the national team, and the attitudes of overpaid, over-the-hill stars such as Andrey Arshavin, Yuriy Zhirkov and Roman Pavlyuchenko certainly doesn’t help. Maybe there is something more unique to Tyumen that might explain this issue though.
Another chant that is often heard in the stands of the magnificent Geolog Stadium is “First Siberian City!”. This needs some quantifying. Tyumen was the first permanent fortress established by the legendary Cossack commander Yermak, although there were other fortified settlements around the same time, such as Tobolsk, birthplace of the creator of the periodic table – and discoverer of the ideal alcoholic content of vodka – Dmitry Mendeleev. The family of the last Tsar, Nikolai II, were imprisoned there in one of Russia’s last remaining stone-built Kremlins before their brutal execution in Ekaterinburg in 1918. Modern times have seen Tyumen blossom with the oil industry bringing enormous investment into the town, thanks to the greatest concentration of Russia’s oil fields being within the oblast, with an increasing number of foreign companies setting down roots in the city. There is still a label, however, half self-depracating and half-insulting, that clings to Tyumen; the Capital of Villages.
A survey of locals has explained this epithet as a nod to the not so distant past when the current city was made up of a collection of villages on the Tura river, which was for centuries one of the main arteries on the Silk Road between the far East and Europe. One local resident said that the title was something that Tyumenski folk could say to each other to mock themselves, but that coming from outsiders came across as an insult, referring to the city as an under-developed country bumkin type of place. This fine balance between flatly accepting their limitations, and proudly broadcasting their achievements, seems to be at the heart of what it is to be from Tyumen. I don’t profess to have fully understood the entire psyche of the people here, but there is certainly a brand of shoulder shrugging when it comes to problems that I believe translates into football following.
There is undoubted charm in the pastel-coloured wooden houses that resolutely stand between gleaming glass tower blocks throughout even the very centre of the city, but it has a feel of odd incompletion. I have never seen such a juxtaposition of architectural styles. Is it a refusal to let go of the past, or a lack of effort to finish developing? As with all things in Russia, there is no simple answer, but for a physical representation of the character of the people, you could do much worse than take a look at the simple rustic reminders of centuries past.