When you get rejected by a budget supermarket chain for a shelf-stacking job, you know it’s time to switch focus; that was my position 12 years ago after finishing journalism college, so I looked abroad for opportunities. I knew nothing of Russian culture or the football other than the UEFA Cup wins in 2005 and 2008 – and of course England’s collapse at the Luzhniki in 2007 – but when I got a job offer in Siberia in a town I’d never heard of I jumped at the chance. The love affair began.
The long unsteady courtship begins
It wasn’t love at first sight though. Nobody around seemed interested in Russian football, so I reached out to the only two English-language websites covering the sport, Russian Football News and Futbolgrad.
I would chart my following of the national team from about the 2012 and the Euros; while it wasn’t exactly gloriously steeped in honeyed romanticism, it was oddly fitting, as it taught me what it means to have an emotional connection to Russian football. Andrey Arshavin slumped in a hotel lobby chair, surrounded by Russian fans, and all but shrugging his shoulders when questioned about the team’s commitment, pretty much summed up the mood.
Every Russian fan has fond memories of Euro 2008 – and with good reason, after the wave of optimism in club football and the prime form of Arshavin, the greatest player of the modern era – but for me Euro 2016 was more significant. The heady days of Guus Hiddink were long gone, the spine of the team was creaking, and it all felt like a dreadful but necessary experience that had to be processed.
Euro 2016 – split loyaties decided?
With Igor Akinfeev in goal, the Berezutsky twins Aleksey and Vasily, Sergey Ignashevich, Slutsky in charge having guided a faltering Fabio Capello-led campaign over the line – the platform should have been solid. The signs were there though; When Igor Denisov was ruled out through injury, his replacement was chosen as Artur Yusupov simply because he was holidaying in France at the time. No preparation, no contingency plans, a mess.
Being an Englishman living in Russia, with a half-English half-Russian family and colleagues from both countries, there was of course the obvious fixture to look forward to. The fan violence on the streets was disgusting to watch, and it offered a telling insight into the mindset of being a fan of both nations. Russian hooligans still looked up to their English counterparts as the gold standard of outright thuggery, even though the nearest equivalents were more slobbish drunkards than fearsome, aggressive combatants.
Russia 1-1 England
We had arranged to all watch the match together in a flat of one of my English colleagues with about 15 of us, and to be honest I genuinely hadn’t decided which country I was going to support. It wasn’t a concerted rejection of my nationality, but I still had a slightly silly sense of rejection over England not providing me with a job despite having two higher education qualifications. I now look back at it and cringe at the naive sense of entitlement that would allow me to feel aggrieved.
Add to that the fact that I’d met my wife in Russia, and our two children were born here, and this was the country that had offered me a whole lifestyle I could never have replicated back in England. Russia supports young families far more than the UK – maternity leave sensibly covers until children are of kindergarten age, government support for each child born is generous, there are far more open green spaces and playgrounds. Even one month of kindergarten costs about the same as one day at private equivalents in England.
So what to do? I am a passionate supporter of any sport I watch; perhaps it’s some sort of addiction or obsessive disorder, but I find it almost impossible to watch any sport without taking a side. When I lived in Italy for a year, my friend Darren and I even got competitive about sailing results published in La Gazzetta dello Sport (Luna Rossa, since you ask). England vs Russia? At the Euros? With the violence sweeping the streets of Marseille? Of all matches in any sport, this was one I simply had to decide in my mind which country to support.
Except I simply couldn’t work out where my loyalties lay – so I was left with the only agonising option of just watching and seeing what came naturally. A tense, relatively turgid affair was dominated by England – Wayne Rooney’s shot tipped onto a post by Akinfeev probably the closest moment – until Eric Dier scored. This was it then…
Pivotal moment of emotion
The instant it went in, my compatriots in the room went wild – my heart sank. It wasn’t an attempt to be different, and certainly wasn’t a conscious decision on any level, but simple, pure emotion. I was gutted.
Vasily Berezutsky’s header at the death was a get-out-of-jail moment, and when his header went in the euphoria simply confirmed matters for me.
Isn’t that what football should be about? Raw, visceral emotion? It should for me anyway, and following Russia that tournament was a hugely impactful moment in my “career” as a fan.
In truth I hope that I never have to go through an England vs Russia moment again. It’s a horribly inescapable tear between two halves, and leaves a mixture of pride, adrenalin, guilt, nerves and pure blind panic.
Earning your way as a fan
The tournament ended in about the most Russian way possible; in a desperate, unavoidable slide towards disappointment. Aleksandr Kokorin and Pavel Mamaev celebrated with a reported $250,000 champagne-fuelled party in Monaco to give the disgruntled fans their target, like Arshavin had four years earlier. They would both be sent to prison a couple of years later after getting drunk on a high-speed Sapsan train from St. Petersburg to Moscow, before battering a government official in the capital.
I grew up indoctrinated into loving Manchester United thanks to my father, who was at Wembley to watch the 1968 European Cup win, and had only every really known pure success – United seemed to win almost everything they touched. Now I had a genuine stake in a side that expected the opposite. It was the real start of a quixotic relationship that I wouldn’t change for anything.
Slutsky left after his temporary contract ended, most of the old boys retired, and Stanislav Cherchesov came in to prepare for the home World Cup. A new cycle was beginning, one that desperately needed to happen, and yet that 2016 Euros was a personal moment of discovery. Sometimes it isn’t entirely rational following Russia, and it rarely delivers tangible success, but it means something real. The poet Fedor Tyutchev once said the following about the country:
“Russia can’t be understood with the mind alone, no ordinary yardstick can span her greatness.”Fedor Tyutchev
I can’t really understand why I love the Russian national team either, but I do.