Football, Russian style: when will our love for the game yield results?

There is no denying that football is an exciting game. But why do Russians enjoy it so much? After all, football is a summer sport and Russia is a northern country!

Football first came to Russia at the end of the 19th century. It was brought here by the British - by employees who worked at various Russian enterprises. They kicked a football around the field in their spare time, and the game gradually became popular among locals. The first Russian football team appeared in 1897, at an amateur sports club in Saint Petersburg. Moscow did not lag far behind. The first football leagues in the country appeared in these two cities. In 1912, a National Football Union was founded based on the leagues in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. The union was the predecessor of the current Russian Football Union. Incidentally, Russia also joined the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) in 1912.

Who could have thought that 106 years later Russia would be hosting the most important FIFA tournament - the World Cup?!

Russia’s affinity for football has only increased over the years, in spite of the fact that Russian football was often a source of disappointment rather than pride for football fans. Our football players have lost many international games, and even our domestic championships were often subpar. But, in spite of this, Russian football also has some accomplishments, even if these accomplishments date back to the era of the USSR. For example, in Soviet times we won the European championships, won Olympic gold medals and even placed fourth at the world championship in England, in 1966. But there haven’t been enough pleasant victories like these over the past hundred years. No wonder one famous old man once exclaimed: “Our people most definitely can’t play football!”. He then suggested that we disband all the football teams and use the fields to grow cucumbers.

Even after last year’s terrible showing at the European Championship in France, Russian fans haven’t given up on our national team or on football in general. According to a survey conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Foundation, just a month after the championship was over Russians voted for football as their favorite sport. Hockey and figure skating are in second and third place in terms of popularity.

Note that both of the latter types of sport are considered winter sports, which makes sense considering the type of climate we live in. But still, we remain inexplicably drawn to football. For whatever reason, it remains our top priority!

Representatives of other sports are starting to openly express how surprised they are by our undying love for football. Famous basketball player Victor Khryapa, a CSKA player who spent some time playing for teams of the National Basketball League abroad, said the following: “I have absolutely no idea why Russians love football as much as they do. It is definitely the most popular sport in the country. Frankly, I don’t understand it. If you compare the accomplishments of our basketball players to those of our football players, the basketball players have certainly done better.”

But this isn’t about who is better, Victor, this is about true love!

And has anybody ever been able to articulate what true love actually is?!

In Russia, many people are beginning to think that it’s time we get to the bottom of our love affair with the sport.

In the spring of last year, Russian Minister of Sport Vitaly Mutko announced the launch of a popular movement called “Russia Loves Football!” during a press conference held in honor of the first visit to Russia by the new FIFA President Gianni Infantino.

“We need to change the image of football in Russia,” the Minister said, “Today we are launching a project called ‘Russia Loves Football!’. We will talk about everything that is connected to football in some way. It is crucial that along with the new stadiums, there is new football in Russia, new fans of this sport. The World Cup in 2018 will have a lot to do with this.”

Gianni Infantino supported the Minister and the movement by proclaiming “I love football” in Russian.

Even President Vladimir Putin has talked about our love of football. Right before the Confederations Cup, a tournament that traditionally takes place before the World Cup, Putin noted that “people in Russia love football.” He added: “I’m really hoping that this love of football will transform into a top quality game!”

Everybody in Russia hopes so!

Pictures by Anastasia Saifulina


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