On arrival at Reutov’s ‘Start’ Sports Complex, home of Prialit, a team from the top division of amateur football in Moscow, a young woman was heading out in pursuit of a toddler. “Ah, a future footballer,” a pensioner smiled as they passed. Muttering and rolling eyes in response, a baleful glare at the pitch where the child’s father, presumably, was playing. “Not if I can help it,” came the reply.
Reutov, just beyond Moscow’s orbital motorway, is part of the hinterland. Not quite Moscow proper, but too close to the capital to have a strong identity of its own. Officially designated a ‘naukograd’, a town of science and technology, it is home to the former USSR Experimental Design Bureau #52. Now known as ‘Mashinostroyeniya’ (literally ‘Machine Construction’) it continues to specialise in military rocket technology. If that conjures up images of Bond-style adventures with top-secret blueprints for devastating weaponry, the reality is a disappointment. In the prime of the Soviet space programme, Reutov may have been a prestigious address but now it has the feel of an unloved dormitory town. Shades of Grays or Purfleet on London’s half-forgotten flanks, but with a Russian accent, it recalls the drab streets of Krasnogorsk, Moscow Region’s bandy mecca. Even the half-hour walk from the nearest metro station (in Novokosino, still technically part of Moscow city) towards the centre of Reutov town (part of Moscow Region) offers a brief descent into progressively shabbier housing and shopping. And reaches the perfect place for a non-league football ground. Tucked away beneath the electricity pylons, with the roar of the motorway half stifled by the plastic screening that dominates urban highways in Russia, it feels like land that nobody wants for a team that few want to see.
The Start Complex could be viewed as Soviet dystopia in microcosm. All the elements of a forward-looking, progressive nation are visible: large-scale electrification, as lauded by Lenin; mass public housing schemes, dominated by panel-built Khrushchev-era apartment blocks; a public encouraged to take up sports and healthy pursuits at their community facility. And yet, somehow, the combined effect manages to look stagnant and ugly. Pylons squat low on the skyline, apartment blocks appear tired and rundown, the stadium feels dominated by its semi-abandoned stands. Although the wooden bulk running alongside the playing surface is roped off and has a sign warning fans to steer clear, it still attracts a handful of spectators who perhaps prefer to get closer to the dug-outs and the ramshackle two-storey dressing room / VIP area. Back in 1991, there may even have been some VIPs when this arena staged a women’s international between the USSR and North Korea; at that time, though, most of the USSR was preoccupied with greater concerns.
The playing area is surrounded by netting – either to protect fans from stray shots or players from fireworks from the stands – and there are proper stands on three sides. The newest looking of these, opposite the dugouts, has plastic seats in bright yellow and blue, matching Prialit’s colours. There’s a covered stand behind the top goal, where the ground backs onto the motorway, but it’s half hidden behind a metal fence and is rather more securely closed to the public. Outside, the ticket office is an example of late-Soviet chic that survived a 2003 refurbishment with its stylized football, abstract sculptural form and cheap-looking pseudo-marble cladding renewed from the 60s original. The office is also deserted: no tickets on sale, no programmes, no food and drink, no half-time raffle. No apparent interest in the club raising any money at all from the few dozen fans who come along; instead it relies on the local authority and local sponsorship – a model that has seen so many clubs rise abruptly on the whim of City Hall only to fade even more sharply when the cash runs out overnight. And that story has already been told here: a display board hails 100 years of football in Reutov, but skirts around the collapse of Reutov FC, a short-lived outfit that played from 2001-2009, reaching the lowest tier of Russian pro football before being replaced by the part-timers of Prialit in 2010. Famous names of Russian football such as Spartak legend Andrei Tikhonov and frustratingly talented journeyman midfielder Alan Kasaev also began their careers on this field. However, their Titan club had a peripatetic existence after quitting the town in 2002 and eventually decamped to Klin, better known as Tchaikovsky’s last home.
Prialit began life brightly, winning the Division 3 Championship of Russia (Division Three is the generic term for the highly regionalised top tier of amateur football in the country) and claiming the Moscow City Cup in the 2011-12 season. Unlike a lot of teams in the Moscow Amateur League it makes some effort to encourage supporters: fixtures are announced in advance and posters go up around town – showing a very different stadium – urging the team onwards with the words ‘Reutov expects victory!’. But crowds are not large, even though entrance is free and the team is playing fairly well. The local ‘Ultras’, a boisterous bunch of mostly teenagers, pitch up midway through the second half. They make a big song-and-dance about their arrival but have little add in the closing stages. Prialit get along well enough without them; 3-0 up when the procession filed in, the home team goes on to win 5-0 against a sorry-looking Burevestnik. Other fans are fairly typical of non-league crowds back in England. Small kids, who’d be happier chasing a ball of their own, are at a disadvantage since the arena is fully enclosed and offers no enticing greensward where a pick-up game can get underway. Old codgers, who remember way back when, pay scant attention to today’s game as they recall how Dynamo got the Cup-Winners’ Cup final in 1972 or debate the goalkeeping merits of Yashin and Dasayev compared with today’s CSKA stopper Igor Akinfeyev. Teenagers, dreaming of being part of a big ‘active support’ movement at one of the Moscow giants, but forced to cool their heels in the hinterland. And a couple of bored cops, intimidating enough to quell the teenagers who are only a couple of years younger but too lethargic to project any real authority. The most energetic group is unrelated to the football, and plays basketball on a free court next to the car park.
The on-field action is undistinguished. Burevestnik offer little meaningful opposition and Prialit win at a canter. But there’s no flash of a potential Tikhonov or Kasaev in waiting. Russian football has moved on, its big clubs hoovering up local promise into vast academies before spitting it out to make way for cut-price prospects from Africa and Latin America. The likes of Prialit are struggling to find a place in this system, just as Reutov is struggling to find an identity on the edge of Moscow.
Start Stadium, Reutov, Russia
Russian Division 3 (Moscow), Aug. 17, 2015.
Prialit Reutov 5 (Lokhanov 2, Koyava, others not known) Burevestnik 0
Att: about 100 (head count)