Andrew Flint –
In January next year, I will have been living in Tyumen for a decade. By any measure, it is quite some time to be settled in a new country, and unsurprisingly an affection for Siberia and the vastly different way of life has grown. Wide-open parks, proper roads, affordable schools and a certain flexibility to rules are just a handful of factors in bedding my roots down so far from the UK – but arguably the strangest addiction I have is that for the local football team, FC Tyumen.
They are certainly not dull. Founded in 1961, they have like most teams from the Soviet Union gone through considerable changes in identity and success. In the 1990s they even made it to the Russian Premier League where they went on to set a record for the worst points total, and thus began a rapid decline. A few years later the first team was even disbanded, and since then they have rattled about between the second and third tiers of the league system.
In a city pushing a million inhabitants, and with no footballing competitors for over 300km, attendances have remained rigidly low at around 1,000 fans. Back in 2012, the Geolog Stadium was refurbished up to top-flight standards, but despite this the only Premier League sides to play there have been visiting Russian Cup opponents and displaced sides looking for a temporary home.
So why is there such little interest? How have the city government invested so much into the facilities – which include a regional centre of excellence – and yet so little into the season budget? What happens when you have to travel to far-flung places like Novotroisk and Ulyanovsk on a tight budget? And can Tyumen stage a glorious return to the national second-tier FNL? This season, I intend to find out by following the team to every game, home and away, with exclusive access to the club and media and what is sure to be a whole lot in between.
One of the main challenges lower-league Russian clubs face is recruitment. Last season, when Nizhny Novgorod visited in November, their manager Dmitry Cheryshev told me that it was nigh on impossible to find winger or strikers with “profundidad”; effectively, with boldness and composure to go behind defences and finish off chances.
Many clubs in the FNL run on a total operating budget of around $4-5 million. That’s for everything – player salaries, staff, stadium rent and upkeep, travel, accommodation on the road, marketing, the whole lot. Attracting players of sufficient quality is not a task for the faint-hearted, and contracts are rarely longer than a year.
Tyumen were no different. Over the summer break – which is only six weeks long given the lack of fixtures over winter – 15 players left, and 12 came in. Simply knowing who the new players are is a challenge. A new rule was also passed for the third-tier Professional Football League (PFL), into which Tyumen had been relegated; at least two-under-21 players must be on the pitch at all times. On top of the complete ban on foreign players at this level, it forces quite a reshuffle.
Fortunately, Tyumen’s youth system is very strong with the Regional Centre of Excellence adjoined to the Geolog itself. From there, Pavel Maslov came through to the first team before being poached by Spartak Moscow in January, while Pavel Shakuro was snapped up by Premier League new boys FC Sochi. Aleksandr Bem played almost the entire season last campaign in the FNL at 17 years of age, while Danil Karpov is a talented winger who broke through.
Ural Ekaterinburg traditionally play a pre-season friendly, and this year they sent their reserve side and youth team for a double header. They arrived 12 days before the PFL season was scheduled to begin. At this level, Russian football splits into five regional divisions of varying size. The East division only has six clubs, while the Centre, South and West divisions can have anywhere between 12 and 16 clubs from year to year. Organisation, then, is key.
And yet as we arrived, the fixture list still hadn’t been sent out. Less than a fortnight to go and clubs still didn’t know where they’d be sending their teams. Welcome to the PFL…
Only 17 seconds were on the clock when one of the few recognisable faces, Karpov, danced around his marker and crossed for 19-year-old Evgeniy Ragulkin to score. Ragulkin had featured sparsely for Tambov last season in the FNL, and his hunger was already evident. Tyumen had been blessed with the legendary predatory skills of Khasan Mamtov a couple of years earlier but had struggled to score regularly since.
One of the new defenders, Georgi Burnash, rattled the crossbar after halftime as Tyumen’s rag-tag bunch of lower-league players physically dominated the Ural youngsters, but with 10 minutes to go the visitors scored a penalty to equal matters. Of course, the result mattered not one jot; not in comparison to knowing where the team bus would be driving two weeks later.
Half an hour later, new teams took to the pitch as the Ural reserve side – who will compete in Tyumen’s Ural Povolzhe division of the PFL this season – offered the resistance. Ural II, as they are known, finished third-bottom of the 11-team division the season before. Very few would have any realistic prospect of playing Premier League football for the senior side ever, yet alone in the foreseeable future.
Bem was starting at right-back for this game. He is a quick-thinking attacking full-back who is comfortable on the ball but has tendencies to get caught out of position. In the first 10 minutes alone diagonal crossfield passes found space behind him, and the second time it lead to the opening goal. Tyumen hit back with a scrappy goalmouth scramble that told us absolutely nothing, but a wonderful moment of composure from new signing Mikhail Biryukov to control a ball over the top and finish certainly did.
Inevitably there was an equaliser, and with no injuries, the workout was a quiet success. There were more pressing matters at hand, however. To follow the team closely, I had committed myself to following every single game across a region of roughly 2 million squared kilometres but had to get to each city.
Back in May, I had approached the manager Goran Aleksic about my plans and had tentatively suggested that I might travel with the team itself. With no post-match media duties, there wasn’t an opportunity to broach the subject with Aleksic. Club president Aleksandr Popov was scheduled to give a brief pitchside interview to my colleague Sergey Schneider, so I decided to join him to see if Popov might give me the green light to tag along with the team.
Popov is a stern man, but a rigidly fair one. In a world of underhand payments and corruption, Tyumen’s official stance has been of adherence to the rules under his watch. A few seasons ago when Tyumen were promoted to the FNL, goalkeeper Rinat Sokolov made a catastrophic howler in an away game. In the dressing room at half time, captain and talisman Khasan Mamtov was furious and lamped his teammate in the face.
Sokolov was found to have accepted a bribe to fix the result and was banished from the club. The then manager Konstantin Galkin was later found to have signed illegal ‘black’ contracts with three players unbeknownst to the club, promising them far higher salaries than the club could afford, and the moment Popov heard about the illicit deals he sacked Galkin and reportedly vowed to never look at him again.
Sanctions were passed down from the Russian Football Union to the club despite Popov’s protestations of innocence, and the six-point deduction was imposed in the closing weeks of last season. Tyumen would have been relegated anyway, but it was a measure of the club’s president that he refused to collude with his manager in the hope of avoiding trouble.
Popov is also president of the city’s hockey and mini-football teams. Rubin Tyumen hockey play in the crumbling Dvorets Sporta arena, a Soviet relic holding about 4,000 spectators, and faced Sariarka Karagandy in the Vyshaya Hockey League (VHL) final this year. In order to gain promotion to Europe’s elite Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) a larger and more modern arena is required, but as of yet attempts to finance such a new stadium have failed.
MFK Tyumen were crowned champions of Russia for the first time and had qualified for the UEFA Futsal Champions League for 2019/20. It just so happened that the draw for the first round – a round-robin group stage of four – was made in the second half of the second friendly against Ural II, and had pitted Tyumen against none other than Barcelona. Sergey needed reaction quote from Popov and had secured a brief slot with him after the game.
We raced round the athletics track to the main stand where Popov was waiting. As Russians do, it was obligatory to shake hands with every male present, regardless of whether you know the others or are on their social level. I had passed him in the corridors of the club on numerous occasions before but had never uttered a word. Expressionless, and with the look of a man who had better places to be, he produced the bare minimum to Sergey on camera before shooting off down the tunnel.
That was that. Twelve days out, and not only did the club not know who they would be facing or when, but I had little idea of how I was going to be able to make my way around the division. Travelling with team was a personal buzz of course, but it offered very simple logistical and budgetary advantages as well, so was vital to the entire project.
During the 2018 FIFA World Cup, I had embarked on a fairly harebrained adventure that involved driving my car to every host city during the 31-day tournament. On a shoestring budget, I somehow pulled it off, driving a total of over 16,000km and sleeping 22 nights in the car itself. Looking back, I can’t understand quite how I survived on a financial, mental and logistical level, but there was an incredible fire it lit inside to pursue the maddest angle possible.
Deep down, there was a part of me that secretly hoped I would have to resort to driving. Realistically I knew it would be both impossible and irrational, and getting that ticket to go with the team would be central.
Andrew will be following the fortunes of FC Tyumen all season as they navigate the tricky waters of the third-tier PFL Ural-Povolzhe division. Granted exclusive access to travel with the team, he’ll report from every game to uncover the gritty realities of life at the bottom of the food chain. Through one-on-one interviews with managers, players, directors, media and fans, and first-hand experience, this will be the first time anyone has delved deep into the fascinating, murky world of the Russian lower leagues in English. Follow his progress here on the Futbolgrad Network. Follow him on Twitter: @AndrewMijFlint.