Reporter’s Notebook: In Small-Town Russia, ‘Football Is My Life’

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My father parks the car and gestures toward the ground-level window of a squat red-brick apartment building, pocked with jutted-out balconies.

"This was my room," he says. "Mom would send me off to do homework, but I'd go quietly to the window — hop! — and off to the stadium."

As in: a few leaps to cross the street, jump the fence and there you are.

"We had no other life except for school, mandatory, and everything else was at the stadium," he says. This was his Soviet Union in the 1960s. Hockey in the winter, soccer in the summer. (Though, of course, my Russian father would never call football "soccer.")

Millions of Russian adults and children play soccer. In covering the World Cup, I asked dozens of Russians how long they've been watching or following soccer. It's been so long, many couldn't remember. Since elementary school? Maybe since middle school? One young woman said she was born wrapped in a football flag.

In my father's hometown of Otradny ("Joyful," pop. 50,000), the stadium is about 50 miles from the brand-new Samara Arena hosting some of this year's World Cup matches. He now lives in Samara, but we've returned to meet one of his best friends from childhood, whose whole life has been devoted to the sport.

The two of them grew up in apartments next door to each other. Both are named Aleksandr, both are the same age. In the 1970s, they both played for the town soccer team called "Neftyanik" ("Oilworker," after the profession that created this town after World War II).

My father's friend, Aleksandr Purgayev, is still on that team — he's the coach.

"Football is my life, it's everything," Purgayev says, standing over the desk in his office piled with black-and-white photos of young men in jerseys posing with or rushing after a soccer ball.

Trophies and plaques are propped up everywhere there's a flat surface. More of them are downstairs, by the main entrance, glistening in a grand display case.

His team is one of the best in the region. They win so many tournaments that Purgayev has to put on glasses and read the engraving to recall what each trophy is for. Players regularly go on to professional leagues and become coaches; one guy became a goalkeeper on the national team for beach soccer.

Here in Otradny, the players do get paid, but they're amateurs with other day jobs. Except for Purgayev, for whom soccer is the day job.

"For a long time now, all my family has understood," he says, "my wife and kids, they know — they used to say, 'You and your football!' but now they say, 'Dad is at work.' "

Purgayev and my father both say there probably isn't a single Russian guy who's never watched a match. Purgayev says their town games draw all kinds of people — up to a thousand in the stands — a lot of retired men, sure, but also girls, women with children.

As far as sport goes, soccer is pretty accessible. It doesn't require expensive equipment, just some shoes and a patch of dirt. It's just something you do as a kid, during recess in school, with friends in the yard, or in today's case, a fancy field.

On one side of Otradny's stadium is a cluster of tiny children, maybe 5 or 6 years old, kicking the ball around. On another side, a tall man towers over a squad of teenagers.

His name is Valeriy Kruntiayev. His own soccer career had started here before he went off to several football academies, played semi-pro and pro, got an education degree and came back to train the next generation — and play on Purgayev's adult team.

"I remember when I was little," Kruntiayev says, "we had a shortage of players and our coach went to different schools and talked to boys, trying to convince them to come to practice. But now we don't have such a problem, we might get 30, 40, even 50 people coming. Everyone wants to train."

The changing room bursts into raucous laughter when Krutniayev summons one member of the team to talk to the reporter lady. The team is all teenage boys, except for one, who's a teenage girl.

Amir Tabarov comes bounding out. He's 14 and the captain of the team. He tells me his favorite players are Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, Brazil's Ronaldinho — and his older brother, who is currently on Otradny's adult men's team and inspired him to get into soccer.

The World Cup is motivation to try to make it onto Russia's national team in time for the next tournament, Tabarov says. "It'll be in four years, I'll be 18 years old," he says. "Maybe I'll be representing Russia."

Coach Kruntiayev is wearing a "Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup" T-shirt at today's practice — he says he's been using the matches as material for training and has even overheard the little preschoolers discussing the games.

"You watch TV and think it's like a parallel universe that you'll never see or know except on TV," he says. "But here you realize [the famous players] are real, and here they are in Samara. You can go there and see."

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