Russia’s population in 2018 is 146 880 432, according to Rosstat. Russian national team has 23 players on the roster, 11 of them would make the starting lineup. And these three numbers make the biggest mystery of summer 2018. Why is it a problem to find 11 men from 146 million, has it always been like that and what is «Russian football»?
This is where our football was born. Leitenanta Schmidta embankment in pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg - a huge port where English workers played football with residents of Petersburg, amid cargo boxes. Not far from here - at the square of Cadets Corp - is where the first ever football match in Russia’s history took place. Vasilievskiy Island - the birthplace of Russian football!
Having originated in St. Petersburg, football quickly spread across Russia. With every official game of the first domestic league, football had been gathering more and more fans. By the early 20th century, stadiums were full. Football - and everything related - was very trendy in pre-revolution Russia.
Football historian Yuriy Lukosyak proved that St. Petersburg is the birthplace of Russian football. And that was acknowledged by FIFA. And these are the first football shoes, which St. Petersburg’s players wore at the very dawn of the last century.
Yuriy Lukosyak, football historian: «The first football shoes were, naturally, imported. Then orders were placed to shoemakers. And the first full-fledged workshop emerged thanks to Ilya Berezin. But these are not made there, these are England-made. Dating back to 1903. But look - St. Petersburg has a special climate, very damp, and there were no pitches. So they needed leather, so that shoes wouldn’t get wet and heavy».
All that started in the Russian Empire continued into the young Soviet country and lasted into the post-war USSR. Not a single sport had as much attention in the press as football. Might be one of the main criteria of popularity - whether a phenomenon is being written about or not. Mandelschtam, Nabokov, Brodsky - all wrote about football. And one Evtushenko’s poem is hitting the nail on the head.
«Football sees a revolution - the goalie leaves the frame and serves as striker in the game»
Pavel Nikiforov: «These words were written about the great Russian goalkeeper Lev Yashin. Before him, all keepers preferred to stand on the line. Yashin was the first to go up the pitch, spray passes - which seemed incredible for that time. The main revolution in World Football».
In the 1960s USSR had a great football team. The real dream team. Champions of Europe 1960, semi-finalists of the World Cup in 1966, finalists in Europe in 1964. Germany and France looked up to them, Brazil and England were competing with them. At some point, football was sport number one. But football crashed together with the Soviet Union.
1990s in Russia - empty stadiums, lack of results and zero interest to football. But at the end of that bizarre decade, football started springing up in the regions.
Pavel Nikiforov: «Russian Cup of 1999 was won for the first time by a team outside of Moscow - St. Petersburg’s Zenit. After Zenit, it was won by Terek, Rostov, Rubin. In May this year it was won by Tosno from the Leningrad region. Won it and ceased to exist in a month. Its also Russian football»
Tosno FC officially dissolved. And thats the story of every year - 2-3 professional clubs disappear annually. But as weird as it may sound - the World Cup can fix things. It usually serves as a point of restart for the host countries.
- Fedor, mustache of luck?
Fedor Pogorelov, sports journalist: «Of hope! We are in a place, where a prayer, hope and faith are the main sponsors of the Russian National Team»
It is probably the biggest joke of the last several weeks, but seriously speaking..
Fedor Pogorelov, sports journalist: «Lets put it this way - if the country applies the same zest to our football that it has to hosting the World Cup, our football can make a significant breakthrough over the next 10 years. In 2 years, Saudi Arabia managed to reform its football so much, that its team has made it to a World Cup again».
So its all about infrastructure, right?
Russian football does exist. Used to be great and mighty, but can still become loved again. Thats what the World Cup is for.