The Rubin Stadium – more accurately a collection of football fields, one of which more or less justifies the name ‘stadium’ – is in Kazan’s northern suburbs. Out here the historic capital of Tatarstan, with its heady mix of Russian and Tatar traditions, is smoothed into the monumental drudgery of the USSR. The local metro station, gloomy and chilly, is named after the workers at the local aviation factory. The Vladimir Lenin Palace of Culture stands in the Wings of the Soviets park, facing a powder blue Stalin-era apartment block crowned by a slender spire and a communist star.
Heroes of the revolution are on parade. Lenin takes pride of place at the head of an alley flanked by Marx, Engels and others – but this is a faded, crumbling Lenin. The restorers are at work and the revolutionary leader is noosed by scaffolding, stripped of his marbled sheen and exposed as a brick-and-cement skeleton. The same chisels nibble at the plinths of Marx and his friends; the quartet of striving socialist citizens at the main gate are penned behind a corrugated metal fence, decorated with a poster advertising today’s match.
Word clearly hadn’t got far, but the Republic of Tatarstan championship was continuing that afternoon. Rubin, better known for its Barcelona-beating Russian Premier League team, also competes some way down the Russian football pyramid. Rubin-2 plods along in the Professional League’s Ural-Volga division while here, in the confusingly named Division 3 (actually the fourth tier overall, the highest semi-professional level and the first competition in the country to be identified by a numbered division), yet another Rubin competes to widespread indifference.
The main Rubin Stadium, sometime home for Premier League game, is deserted: its 10,000 seats aren’t needed today, not even for the visit of defending Tatarstan champion and upcoming cup finalist Runako-Bugulma. Instead the dozen or so fans are directed to field number 2, where the so-called West Stand turns out to be the away dug-out and five rows of empty seats behind the goal are at our disposal. No information about who is playing can be found: the teams aren’t announced to the sparse crowd and nobody has even thought of producing a programme. Bugulma, a town of 85,000 or so, is best known as the birthplace of Russian pop star Alsou. She left at a young age but few have followed her today. With Russia’s typically haphazard transport links it’s not surprising that apparently no supporters have attempted the 20-hour bus journey to Kazan.
At first sight Rubin looks the more professional outfit: it’s the kit that makes the difference, the same smart all-burgundy (all Ruby, according to the club’s name) affair that features in top flight games. But it’s Runako that plays the better football: incisive passing around the box carves out the better chances, even if their goals tend to come from set pieces lumped into the mixer for a knock down. The visitors take the lead, prompting barely a ripple from fans lulled by the sunshine.
For most of the game – even as Rubin fight back to go in 2-1 up at half time – the spectators remain somnolent. The game generates a contentious incident when a high foot sends a Rubin forward tumbling in the box with the indignation of a man who knows that only the lack of either contact or malicious intent separates this from a heinous offence. An English non-league crowd would take the opportunity to barrack all parties in equal measure: the offending defender (dirty bugger!), the injured forward (gerrup yer ponce!) and, especially, the inactive officials (are you watching this game, ref?). In Russia, the low mutterings of the not-terribly-wounded victim can clearly be heard.
Late on there’s a flare-up. Rubin’s substitute goalie concedes his third of the afternoon, completing a 4-2 win for Runako. The youngster – his voice still breaking as he cries out his team’s mantra of ‘Blizhke’ (closer) – hasn’t had much luck. Runako’s equaliser was a well-struck angled effort after the defence was carved open. The third was an own goal, a cross sliced in by a defender sliding in at the near post. The fourth, at the same post, came from a corner that the man on the post happily ignored, leaving the rest of the team stranded as the forward headed home unmolested. From the seats a lone voice cries out in protest, and the goalie responds angrily as he retrieves the ball from the net.
“What’s up? You don’t like it? Why don’t you come and have a go?”
A lament about the concession of three goals and a now inevitable defeat – “we were winning until you turned up” – is met with a passive-aggressive shrug and a vengeful boot of ball up field, and our grumbling fan swiftly makes his excuses and leaves.
Gone but not forgotten. The final whistle blows and it emerges that about 70% of the assembled spectators are friends and family of the sub keeper.
“What happened to that guy? Where did he go?”
“Dunno, son. He said his piece then he upped and left.”
Probably a wise decision in the circumstances.
Russia, Kazan, Rubin Stadium
Republic of Tatarstan Championship (Russian Amateur Championship, Division 3)
Rubin 2 Runako-Bugulma 4
Att: 15 ish