In Russia, whilst the already wealthy venues in the west received expensive infrastructure upgrades due to the World Cup, those such as the Spartak Stadium in Novosibirsk are literally left to rot.

Russia's fans watch a live broadcast of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Novosibirsk, a city in Siberia, the region completely ignored during the tournament.
Russia's fans watch a live broadcast of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Novosibirsk, a city in Siberia, the region completely ignored during the tournament. ( Getty Images )

Arriving an hour later than planned Staruhin Aleksandr Igorevich came tumbling down a steep embankment, took off his shirt and pants and dove off the end of a short pier into waters that two months earlier had been frozen over.

“The first time is the hardest,” he yelped as he clambered back onto the pier, raced to the end and once again plunged into the wide expanses of the Angara River.

It was ten in the evening and the sun still a force on the edge of the Siberian city of Irkutsk, not far from Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest lake.

As the global football family is transfixed on Moscow ahead of Sunday’s final between France and Croatia, the feel-good success of the host nation is still a lingering glow but here – in the ‘other’ side of Russia – the World Cup may as well have been taking place on the Moon. 

With climates so harsh that playing the game outdoors is only possible for three months of the year, any talk of a World Cup in Siberia is immediately met with ice hockey references and the football event is simply referred to as the championships, a tournament and a team, according to locals, that’s built for Moscow, not all of Russia. 

Never before in the history of the World Cup has entire swathes of a host nation been simply ignored as has been the case in Russia – and many in Siberia are far from happy about it. 

The ‘Russian’ World Cup is in reality a party only for those in the western half of the nation with the easternmost venue, Yekaterinburg, marking the end of the line with not a single host city selected from the subsequent 5,000 or so kilometres that reach all the way down to the coastal region of Vladivostok – a city that borders North Korea.

Igorevich’s hometown, Irkutsk, sits in the middle of Siberia and from here right across to what’s known as the Far East the game has long been under loved, riven by scandal and seen a host of clubs die and rise again in a different name, only to fall once more.

Igorevich, 29, works for one of the 11 offshoots of the national sporting powerhouse, CSKA Moscow, that are dotted across the sprawling expanse of Russia. 

Usually confined to conducting his duties as the head youth coach of the multi-facetted sporting club from a desk downtown, for the three summer months from June to August he lives in a tent on the shores of the Angara.

Children, from eight to 14, come here for a week at a time where they are given boot-camp training in the mountains and hills complete with eight-kilometre morning runs, river swims and everything from meditation to target practice with the aim of preparing them to be the best athletes that they can be in their chosen sport.

Staruhin Aleksandr Igorevich (centre) is the head youth coach of CSKA Moscow in Irkutsk.
Staruhin Aleksandr Igorevich (centre) is the head youth coach of CSKA Moscow in Irkutsk. ( Scott McIntyre/ TRTWorld )

For the football players the aim is that those with promise will be selected by the local Dynamo team or in an ideal world, taken to Moscow for a chance to win a place at the parent CSKA team, the 13-time Russian champion.

The reality, as Igorevich, told me is vastly different.

“From Irkutsk to Moscow, it’s more than 5,000 kilometres, it would take us a week to travel this distance and if we are lucky we can take maybe one child a year.

“It costs thousands of dollars for food, accommodation and transport and it’s money we don’t have, this is the reality of life in Russia.”

That was a refrain he would often use, from describing the crater-like road surface that wound through the remote mountains to the isolated CSKA base, to the benefits of bringing the World Cup to Russia.

“Talent scouts ignore our players and they only see good players in Moscow because that is the capital.

“The Federation too doesn’t help at all, we get no money and no support – zero – so in the end the parents must pay but of course it’s still my dream that one day we will be able to develop star players here in Irkutsk.”

That’s a task that has already been achieved to a degree with two of the players in the current Russian World Cup squad, Fyodor Kudriashov and Roman Zobnin, being born in Irkutsk.

Russia's Roman Zobnin, left, comes from Siberia.
Russia's Roman Zobnin, left, comes from Siberia. ( AP )

Looking further afield, almost a third of the Russian side was born in Siberia with another three having spent at least part of their club careers in the vast region.

Yury Gazinsky, the man that scored the tournament’s first goal, as well as his fellow midfielder, Aleksandr Golovin, who grabbed the final goal in Russia’s 5-0 demolition of Saudi Arabia in the opening match were both also born and raised in Siberia.

Golovin, regarded as one of Russia’s best players, hails from Kemerovo, 200 kilometres southeast of the nation’s third largest city, Novosibirsk – another major area completely overlooked by the World Cup for reasons that the football fraternity there struggle to understand.

After having departed Irkutsk I travelled 1900 kilometres west to the city to meet with Vyacheslav Komkov, a former teammate of national goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev when they played together in the Russia Olympic side more than a decade ago. 

With injury having curtailed his playing career, Komkov now coaches the youth team at his local club, FC Sibir, and is another person who is angry that Siberia has been cast off from the World Cup. 

“This is a problem, a big problem and we don’t understand why there are no matches in Siberia.

“People say we have no football but look at the current stars in the national side from Siberia.

“People talk about the distances you need to travel but already the distances from Moscow or St Petersburg to Sochi are huge so why not here?”

Standing in what can generously be termed the back stand of the club’s 13,000-seat home stadium you immediately get the sense of just what a game-changer the World Cup could’ve been for the region.

To clamour up to Komkov’s perch at the top of the venue you have to do so over rows and rows of raw wooden planks where seats once sat and whilst the already wealthy venues in the west received expensive infrastructure upgrades due to the World Cup, those such as the Spartak Stadium in Novosibirsk are literally left to rot. 

Vyacheslav Komkov now coaches the youth team at his local club, FC Sibir, and is another who is angry that Siberia has been cast off from the World Cup.
Vyacheslav Komkov now coaches the youth team at his local club, FC Sibir, and is another who is angry that Siberia has been cast off from the World Cup. ( Scott McIntyre/ TRTWorld )

To add an even more eerie feel to the venue, both the stadium and the surrounding parkland were built way back in the 1930s on top of a huge graveyard and Komkov knows the benefits the World Cup could’ve brought to his club and the region more broadly. 

“The World Cup was a chance for us to improve and show our region because although there is no money here we have many talents but they all end up in Moscow or St. Petersburg.

“Much of these issues are to do with politics for sure but it’s my dream to keep working hard with our youth and produce more national team players from Siberia.”

My final trip across this huge region – an area that’s 16 times larger than Turkey – took me to a city where the local football club is bucking the trend of Siberian struggles although they’re not without issues of their own.

Krasnoyarsk is for the most part a fairly rugged, industrial, city but the local football team, FC Yenisey, is a beacon of hope for Siberia after they earned promotion to the top flight of Russian football for the very first time this year.

In the process they will become just the seventh club from Siberia to have participated in the Russian Premier League but they too have done so against great odds.

With snow blanketing their hometown for much of the year FC Yenisey have to play at a 3,000-seat indoor venue.
With snow blanketing their hometown for much of the year FC Yenisey have to play at a 3,000-seat indoor venue. ( Scott McIntyre/ TRTWorld )

With snow blanketing their hometown for much of the year they have to play at a 3,000-seat indoor venue which means often fans have to queue for the better part of a day just to secure tickets to see the side play.

This year though they will be forced to face their maiden top-flight campaign playing outdoors in sub-zero temperatures because the capacity of their indoor dome doesn’t meet Premier League requirements.

While the rich get richer in the glitzy and modern cities of western Russia where the global spotlight of the World Cup is shining, here in Siberia – a region a fourth bigger than the world’s second largest nation, Canada – football is struggling merely to survive.

We often hear that one of the central tenets of hosting a World Cup is that it is required to leave some form of national legacy but as Igorevich, the youth coach back in Irkutsk notes, this is a World Cup for only half the nation. 

“For Russia the World Cup is a great thing but it’s bad for Siberia because we are so far away.

“Naturally I would love to have games here in Irkutsk or other Siberian cities but this is Russia, we are always overlooked.

“People think of us as poor, with only bears, forests and vodka.

“They take our money and keep it in the European part of Russia but we are a kind and generous people and I hope that the World Cup can bring positive things to all of Russia.”

Source: TRT World