Who doesn’t love a proper wintry background for their football? Snow on the pitch, fans getting down early to clear the terraces and get a free ticket to watch an orange ball on a field where pristine white is punctuated by muddy strips where the shovels have been out to mark the lines. Then, after the thaw, you get to play the rest of the season on a ploughed field where players outnumber blades of grass.
It doesn’t happen so much now. Even an orange ball is more likely to be a commercial deal with a manufacturer, rather than a last resort. But if you know where to look, you can still find obscure takes on the beautiful game.
Lovozero, a small village in the heart of Russia’s Kola Peninsular, has the kind of climate that doesn’t really allow for snow to stop play. North of the Arctic Circle, if snow and ice puts players off there simply isn’t a game. So, as part of the annual Arctic Olympics, there’s an ice football tournament. In 2014, a month after the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the local version celebrated its 80th anniversary and the footballers were up for the cup just as much as their more wintry colleagues on skis and skates.
In essence, ice football, also known as ‘Zimny futbol’, or ‘Winter football’ is like five-a-side: small pitch, small goals, limited numbers. But, instead of a warm leisure centre and a smooth parquet floor, the pitch is ice, banks of snow form the sidelines and players adopt whatever footwear best helps keep them upright. The air temperature is around -15C. Even Newcastle fans would keep their shirts on in this weather, an additional bonus of the Arctic game.
As a spectacle, it’s more like something out of ‘It’s A Knock-out!’, a sense enhanced by the colourful fairground attractions behind one goal. Sliding tackles can cover some serious distance, intricate passing is betrayed by a bobble on the ice. Teams tend to choose between keeping the ball in the air, or getting their heads down and running at the opposition. Crowds are sporadic; the day’s big draw is the reindeer racing event across the snowy, mountain fringed plain on the edge of the village. The big grudge match pits Sever, a team from the neighbouring community of Revda, against a local Lovozero select. Sever, happily, doesn’t refer to the fate of anyone’s ligaments on a treacherous surface; it’s the Russian word for North, and here, three hours’ flight from Moscow and 200km from the airport serving the mining town of Kirovsk, we’re certainly northern.
Sever’s kit is a shade of orange to match the ball, the home team wear snow white. The cup goes back to Revda. Next year, on the last weekend in March, everyone will be back to do it all again.