Few people now recall that football clubs like Nottingham Forest and Derby County started out as multi-sport organisations. Fewer still remember that bandy was one of the sports involved. As the 2017 Bandy World Cup gets underway in Sweden this weekend, here’s a quick look at one of England’s forgotten sports.
You won’t see the Three Lions in Sweden for this year’s championship. Today’s game is dominated by the host nation’s rivalry with Russia; everyone else is playing catch-up, assuming they are playing at all. Even the Somalian team that improbably and unsuccessfully competes in the B pool is comprised of Swedish-based refugees. This game, effectively field hockey on ice, is very much a game of cold climates.
Not always, though. In England’s fens it used to be popular, back when hard winters froze the waterways and skating was both recreation and short-cut across the countryside. The first international tournaments were won by the Brits, back in those pioneering days before the First World War when men with impressive moustaches had the time and leisure to amuse themselves by devising sporting tournaments and taking the chance to show Johnny Foreigner a thing or two.
Russia, however, was not invited to compete. Prior to the USSR’s decision to take up ice hockey in 1946, bandy – known as ‘hockey with a ball’, or simply ‘Russian hockey’ – was the traditional ice-bound sport. Local legend traces it back to monks amusing themselves on the frozen rivers outside the monastery walls, the band of die-hard fans still regard it is an essentially home-grown game with little foreign influence, pointing to a bucketload of trophies at club and international level as evidence.
What, exactly, is it? First of all, it absolutely isn’t ice hockey. It’s played with a ball, not a puck, it’s supposed to be a non-contact sport, and the ice pad is similar to a football field. Teams have 11 players, all but the goalie carry a rounded stick, somewhat shorter and notably more curved than an ice hockey stick. With no boards, and no play behind the nets, there’s no scope for dump-and-chase tactics: aficionados of the Soviet ice hockey school attribute the CCCP’s love of ‘tic-tac-toe’ passing play to the tactics learned on the bandy rink, while the first Soviets to try playing with a puck spoke of how much they hated its flattened proportions and unpredictable skids.
Even in Russia, though, it’s now a minority sport. The national championship is played out in front of small crowds, usually in unfashionable venues. Moscow’s top team, Dynamo, plays its home games in the speed-skating complex at suburban Krylatskoye; crowds are reluctant to follow. Elsewhere, many clubs play in the open air. For fans, that can mean two hours exposed to sub-zero temperatures. The towns that live and breathe the game – Krasnogorsk, Ulyanovsk, Arkhangelsk – are relatively little known, lacking any major football or ice hockey team.
Even so, the love endures. The cognoscenti still gather, albeit in small numbers, to catch games. A clutch of middle-aged men in blue-and-white scarves wait for a minibus to get from metro station to arena in Moscow; a factory wall in Krasnogorsk is decorated with a colourful Zorki mural in honour of the town’s team. Poor performances still attract angry recriminations from the terraces, as Vodnik Arkhangelsk’s players found out after a miserable start to a game at Dynamo: the coach’s time-out was drowned out by fans yelling “Aren’t you ashamed? Doesn’t that shirt mean anything to you?”.
And, somewhere in Sweden, when Russia – inevitably – finds itself in a decisive game against the hosts, it’s likely an elderly gentleman in a Volga Ulyanovsk bobble hat will tell anyone who listens … this bandy is a real Russian game, you know.