It is widely considered that football is at the epicentre of sporting life in England. On a daily basis newspapers dedicate pages upon pages of print to the somewhat other-worldly goings on of the sport. Tuesday and Wednesday nights are spent in front of the television to go on top of the usual Saturday and Sunday games. That is not to mention the much loved Sunday League football or Five-aside games that many partake in.
For many, their lives revolve around the sport. However, when we cast our glance Eastwards what is the situation like? Does football still reign supreme as the fulcrum of people’s lives? Here in Russia, it is undeniable that there is a love for football. Although the second half of the season hasn’t begun yet football is still on TV. Whether it is Premier League, Champions League, Bundesliga or even the much maligned Europa League any self-respecting bar will be showing the games deep into the night. The most popular retort to the statement that you are from Manchester, both boys and girls, is ‘ah, Manchester United?’ Obviously, football plays a part.
However, throughout these conversations and time spent in bars it seems that there is another force at work here. Although important, football, especially Russian football, is not the be all and end all. Unlike England, most conversations are not started with discussion of recent results. Sportmaster (Russia’s answer to Sports Direct, if you were wondering) isn’t a warehouse of Rubin Kazan football shirts. Granted the season has stopped for a winter break, but you sense that football is never at the forefront of people’s lives. That honour goes to Ice Hockey, or just Hockey as for those here that believe it is the only true form of the game. It is much more common to greet the Green, Red and White of AK Bars, the local team, when walking into a sports merchandise store. Adverts for the 7 match play-off series against their UFA rivals are everywhere.
Just on a ten-minute drive around the town countless amateur rinks were pointed out to me. This is the sport that people care about. So, if hockey is Russia’s answer to football how does the game-day experience compare? Everyone knows the stereotype about Russian Ultras. It is without a doubt many of you watched Ross Kemp several years back and noted the Fascist like behaviour of a select few of the football fans. Yet, despite the fiercely nationalistic aspect to the game, Russians are extremely proud of their national team (they’re also hosting the World Cup in May), a match-day experience is one that all English football stadiums should strive towards. The TatNeft Arena, home of AK Bars, manages to create a hostile environment with little threat of violence. The group of Ultras standing behind the goal, in all white tops and the predominantly green scarves, sing uninhibitedly throughout the whole game.
Conducted by someone who seems to buy a ticket to have his back to the action for the whole time, they create quite a sound. Yet, the possibility of violence doesn’t seem to be in the air. Throw in to the mix inflatable batons that the rest of crowd bash relentlessly, an overly-energetic host and the closed roof and you have an atmosphere I can’t imagine visiting teams enjoy. The travelling contingent of no more than 100 does little to drown out the noise of thousands. Of course, this was a solitary play-off game. However, for normal league matches in Moscow at both Spartak and Dinamo the situation seemed to be the same. What’s more, the Spartak stadium was dry of any alcohol. Watching a short-haired, very Slavic looking Russian man shout at the top of his voice before taking a sip of his yoghurt drink really makes you question the necessity of alcohol in the stands at any sport. Now this isn’t a plea to make football more like Ice Hockey. They are two completely different sports with completely contrasting histories. At a football stadium there will be at least four or five times as many people as there were at the AK Bars game. However, noting the differences in how we relate to the sport at the centre of our societies is fascinating, despite the existent myths about alcoholism in the Motherland.