The real Russia - football in the Ural Mountains
Our Goal Click journey has taken us to Russia with a stunning series of photos from our photographer Sergey Novikov. Since 2011 Sergey has been documenting the world of Russian amateur football through his “Grassroots” project with the aim of finding the most picturesque football pitches in the country.
For his Goal Click photo series Sergey travelled to the Ural Mountains in the middle of Russia to capture images from seven towns in the regions of Perm Krai and Sverdlovsk Oblast: Perm, Uralsky, Chusovoy, Lysva, Kachkanar, Degtyarsk and Rezh. Sergey documented the life of amateur clubs from local championships and the relationship between football, social life, industry and the economic crisis in the Ural Mountains.
Why did you choose the Ural Mountains and these towns?
I decided to head inland to the Ural Mountains, Russia’s "spine" where Europe and Asia meet. This is the middle of Russia, not geographically but culturally. I explored two regions of the Urals - Perm Krai and Sverdlovsk Oblast. Both of them have one representative in the Russian Football Premier League, but I was more interested in documenting the life of the real football underdogs - amateur clubs from local championships. There are seven towns in my story from The Ural Mountains: Perm, Uralsky, Chusovoy, Lysva, Kachkanar, Degtyarsk and Rezh.
The main economic activities in The Urals are mining and metalwork, which deeply impact social life and football, including the names of the stadiums and clubs. Of the seven local stadiums that I visited three were named "Metallurg" and two were called "Gornyak" ("Miner").
The harsh nature of provincial Russia is displayed on the football pitches. The economic crisis in the country affects many parts of football, including financial support of the teams, the condition of pitches and even the availability of medical care at the stadiums.
Nevertheless, the spirit of football traditionally prevails on a match day in the towns. Football always attracts a large number of locals into the stands at the weekend. Although there is no financial reward for a victory, players in the countryside fight in the matches for their team and town, as their fathers and grandfathers once did. The continuity of generations, conservatism and patriarchal character of modern Russia is shown very well in the football stadiums of small provincial towns.
What do The Ural Mountains represent about modern Russia?
I like to document the countryside and not the big cities. Just two cities in Russia attract the money, Moscow and St Petersburg. All other cities, towns, regions and countryside are quite poor. Life there is like 30 years ago in Soviet times. They have the same stadiums, the same citizens, the same interests in life and the same beliefs in politics and economics. This is the whole country and we need to show it, not just the games of the Champions League in Moscow.
The Stadiums are very old. There are quite a few funny photographs, for example where two players come out from the locker room and the woman is selling stuff like water and bread. It’s very Soviet. Its quite rustic, quite old-fashioned, the benches are wooden, there is no money. For the changing rooms, they often use any buildings that are near the stadium. I have seen changing rooms in a church. Many have not been looked after and need some paint!
Of the seven towns you went to, which town had the most interesting story?
The most interesting story for me is Degtyarsk, because actually this was a very rare game. Degtyarsk is mining town where there is a huge mountain of industrial waste of the mining corporations that overlooks the pitch. The stadium has been out of use for a long time. They don’t have a local team. But before elections in September they arranged a game for a local team named “Gornyak” against the team of the nearest town.
For two years I tried to get into the stadium to photograph a game, but there never were any games. But this time the local authorities told me about this game. I was a guest visitor for this match and they even gave me a microphone. They announced that I was from Moscow and that I would take group portraits of the local team. Everything for the elections to support the right candidate! Politics is very much linked with sport. If you see the top 10 richest Russian businessmen in the Forbes list, all of them support a sports team like CSKA Moscow or Spartak Moscow, but of course not regional football.
Were you trying to make any statement about Russian football with the photos?
I try to bring attention to amateur football in Russia. Usually there are only 200-300 people watching football live in the stadium, there is no TV broadcasting and no photographs. Many people do not even know which teams play in their region, only the main team of the city. In the countryside even the taxi drivers do not know where the stadium is in their town! But amateur football is the same as professional football. There are 11 players on the pitch, the same rules, and 90 minutes. The life of the local players in the game is 10-15 years like in professional football, but they need our attention and support. I follow the comments on my website after I publish photos, so I can see how important it is for the people and teams involved in my project. I get great feedback and people invite me to places to shoot.
Football is a miniature of the country. It is a reflection of the economic and social situation in Russia. Russia will host the World Cup in 3 years. We will construct 10 new stadiums. We are not reconstructing other stadiums. All the money goes on the major infrastructure but not in the regions.
I see the stadiums as objects of social infrastructure, as elements of urban environment. My backgrounds around the Stadium always show something local, something important for local community – churches, power plants or mountains for example. People live there and I like to show the infrastructure and social life, it is documentary photography.
Why is football so important for Russia and Russians?
Traditionally it is the number one sport in the country, although of course we have no real achievements in international football, maybe a 3rd place in the 1960s! Even the Russianfootball players do not play in the big European leagues anymore.
But in every corner of the country people play football. It is a national sport. The local football team is a tool to unite local communities. In a small town on a Saturday and Sunday people do not know what to do. Shops, drinking parties and football are the main attractions in the town. It is the same as other small towns in Europe.
The headlines that come out of Russia are usually around racism in Russianfootball. How big a problem is it?
There are of course cases of it. But this is just a small minority. Some teams have an ultra fan base and these fans support and display some Nazi and nationalist ideas. It is a problem for big teams. One Russian team missed out on European football but were disqualified because of the racism in the stands. In local stadiums some teams have fans with similar views. It is commonplace.
Is there a good atmosphere at the games?
I have had some conflict with local people in the stadium, usually old drunks. But it is rare. Usually locals are very kind and open to visitors, ready to talk about the local team and the town. I often ride with the football players on their buses when there is a lack of transport connections.
In one photo you can see smoke and fires. These fans, the Blind Pew Crew, came to me to ask where I am from and if I am shooting for myself or for the police! They are just a small fan group of this Perm club, but they are good supporters and travel to other towns to support.
But their flag is yellow and blue. In the stadium in Lysva, it was an away game for them, one local woman became angry of the flag as she thought it was the flag of Ukraine. She was very nervous why a flag of Ukraine was there. They answered this was the flag of their club, not Ukraine!
Do you think football can play a part in resolving political issues?
Not sure. It was a tough question with the Crimean football clubs, because Crimea is part of Russia now. Russia has not allowed Crimean football clubs in the Russian Football Federation, because they know if it happens the Russian clubs will not be allowed to play in European tournaments. So Crimea is part of Russia but the football clubs are not. I see football as a tool for some political movements, often around elections, and when a businessman supports sport it is good karma for him as people like football and sports.
This is a view from the nearest roof of the "Gornyak" stadium in Kachkanar, Sverdlovsk Oblast. “Gornyak” translates as “mining worker”. This is an amazing Stadium; I think it’s beautiful. It’s a bit old fashioned but looks great with the background. I climbed to the roof of a nine-story house to take the photo.
You can also see a poster of the metal works factory at the same stadium. There are not many fans here but this is not the main stand! I try to bring attention to amateur football in Russia. Usually there are only 200-300 people watching football live in the stadium, there is no TV broadcasting and no photographs. Many people do not even know which teams play in their region, only the main team of the city. In the countryside even the taxi drivers do not know where the stadium is in their town!
This is a very interesting team named FC “Rezh-Hleb” in Rezh, Sverdlovsk Oblast. We can translate this as “cut” and “bread”, so they are called “the bread cutters”. The main sponsor of the club is a huge baking factory making very simple bread and they sponsor the sports team, buy their kits and pay for their travel. This photo shows the reserve players, two coaches of the team and the doctor during their home game against FC "Triumph" Alapaevsk.
I wanted got take a group portrait of the local football club FC "Lysva" in the town of Lysva, Perm Krai region. They were very interested in the being in a photo for British media and an exhibition. I told them they didn’t need to have any fear of any European countries or Great Britain!
In every corner of the country people play football. It is a national sport. The local football team is a tool to unite local communities. In a small town on a Saturday and Sunday people do not know what to do. Shops, drinking parties and football are the main attractions in the town.
Here is a unique team called FC "Fanerschik" in Uralsky, Perm Krai - it translates as "Plywood worker". This is a mono town. Many towns in this area have one big factory or one big plant in the town and many of the local residents work in the factory. The main factory here is a plywood factory and many players work in the factory. They are not professional, they are not paid, and football is their hobby. We can see inside the changing room of the team with a tactics board, some reserve players and their beautiful pitch by the Kama River.
This analogue scoreboard is painted 0-0, so it cannot be changed! The names of the teams can be changed with a ladder. But once a team scores, the scoreboard is useless. But it’s just used to announce the teams. This was a cup game. In the Russian language, there is a river named Kama. One of these teams is named Kama, the other one can be translated as “territory around Kama”, and so it’s a real derby match!
Finally in this game there was a bad knee injury for one of the players. Seven players carried him off the pitch because he could not walk. Local medical help was not very supportive, so a local doctor called an ambulance. This is also related to the economic situation in Russia. If there was an ambulance available in the town it would arrive in less than 30 minutes, but it didn’t and this boy was in a lot of pain.