Support for Russia Slipping Among Football Fans in Central Asia, Caucasus
On June 26, Russia plays Algeria in a World Cup Group H match that should determine which of the two teams moves on from group play to the round of 16. Beyond Russia’s borders, in other formerly Soviet states, there are plenty of football fans cheering for the Russian national team to win.
But even outside of Georgia and Ukraine, two states that have had their troubles with the Kremlin in recent years –a good number of aficionados, along with casual followers, are rooting for Russia to loose, or are hoping other teams win.
EurasiaNet.org correspondents have taken the pulse of football fans across Central Asia and the Caucasus, and offer the following survey on rooting preferences.
The default setting for many in Kazakhstan is to support Russia at the World Cup. Russia is Kazakhstan's closest strategic partner.
Ethnic Russians make up just over 20 percent of Kazakhstan's population, but the Russian team enjoys support from a wide cross-section of Kazakh society, where it is seen as the natural successor to the Soviet Union.
In a crowded Sports Bar in the Shiny River Hotel in Oskemen, a city in northeastern Kazakhstan, Simyon, in his early 30s, who was watching a World Cup match recently, agreed that people favored Russia, but thought it unlikely the team could win. Personally, he says he supports Germany because it “plays really well.”
In Kazakhstan’s relatively small ethnic Kazakh nationalist camp, there is support for England and South Korea. The general feeling is one of ABR – anyone but Russia, a sentiment heightened by recent events in Ukraine.
“It’s hard to determine Kyrgyzstan’s favorite, but one of the beloved teams here has always been Russia,” says Zholdosh Isakov, chief sports editor at Kyrgyzstan’s private NTS television station, which has exclusive rights to broadcast the World Cup in this mountainous Central Asian nation.
“The older generation, being born and raised in the Soviet Union, will always cheer for the Russian team,” said Isakov, 32, NTS’s on-air commentator for most important games. But younger people, including Isakov, are split. Personally, he supports Germany for its “excellent technique and discipline,” although he notes there are many England fans inspired by the English Premier League. The English team, however, failed to make it out of group play.
For bar owners, the World Cup means big business. “Tables are reserved in advance, sometimes a week and even a month before the important games, like quarterfinals and finals,” explains Valentin Doker, a 22-year old waiter at one of Bishkek’s most popular bars, Johnny Pub, where the walls are festooned with flat-screen TVs. “During the last game with Germany it was so crowded that we had to bring in extra tables and chairs,” Doker said. The bar’s capacity is 250 people, but during big games it can seat up to 350.
Indeed, nights are unusually lively in Bishkek these days. “I go to bed in the afternoon, so I can wake up later to enjoy football,” says Brazil fan Nurlan Maarazykov, 25.
Maarazykov joked that the World Cup has created tension in his family. “At home we have heated debates because I cheer for Brazil and my brother cheers for Argentina. So my house is now divided into two fronts,” he said with a laugh. One team that would probably unite Maarazykov’s family is Kyrgyzstan, but since independence, it has never qualified for the World Cup tournament. “So emotionally, historically and geographically, the closest team for many is still Russia,” says Maarazykov. “There’s still a feeling of loyalty to the Russian team left from the Soviet times.”
In Osh, the largest city in southern Kyrgyzstan, the World Cup is less popular than it was in previous years, according to an Uzbek resident of the city in his late 40s, who says there is no longer as much interest because “there is no team to support.”
“Right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was the team supported by all. Not anymore. People are split. Russia is still number one, but this is fading,” he said. Asked about Kyrgyz football, he laughed: “No comment.”
While the official line in Uzbekistan often takes a contrary stance towards Russia, among ordinary people there is widespread support for the Russian national team at this year’s World Cup. People watch the games rebroadcast from Russian channels in the Russian language and bars are full of Russia supporters.
“Russia has been the team that people here traditionally support,” says Otabek, a football fan from Tashkent who is in his mid-30s. He adds that most of his friends support Russia but that he feels an affinity for the Netherlands as his generation grew up with the great Dutch players of the late 1980s, including Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard.
Despite its poor performance in Brazil, Spain has many supporters among younger Uzbek fans who have come of age with the dominant Spanish team of recent years. Argentina is popular, in the main because of Lionel Messi and his ubiquitous face. Brazil, the host country, is also widely supported. As Otabek puts it, “Brazil is Brazil.”
Armenia has traditionally had close ties with Russia and most Armenians continue to support that political and economic alliance. Yet their football loyalties seem to lie with other teams in the World Cup tournament in Brazil, namely the host team, along with Spain and Germany.
This sentiment is on ample display at a myriad cafes and bars in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, that turn into packed fan zones during World Cup broadcasts. Armenians hold German football in particularly high regard ever since Armenia’s top star, Henrikh Mkhitarian, joined Borussia Dortmund from Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk in a 27.5-million-euro transfer in July 2013.
The 25-year-old attacking midfielder, who reportedly spurned Liverpool, could not prevent the Armenian national team, currently 38th in the FIFA rankings, from losing 6-1 to Germany in a friendly match played on June 6.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan cited that defeat as the reason why he is now cheering for Germany. The score, he told state television on June 17, will no longer be embarrassing if the Germans triumph in Brazil. Most Armenians would probably agree.
Without a strong national football team of its own, the South Caucasus energy power of Azerbaijan has no clear favorite at this year’s World Cup.
Most football fans in this Turkic country of roughly 9.3 million would have supported Turkey if it had qualified for the finals because of the two countries’ close historical and cultural ties. With Turkey’s absence, Azerbaijanis are strongly divided over whom to support. There seems to be roughly an equal level of support for Azerbaijan’s two neighbors, Russia and Iran, two countries that qualified for the tournament in Brazil. There is also lots of support for some of football’s perennial powers: Those under the age of 30 tend to back Spain, which has dominated international football for almost a decade before being unceremoniously bumped out of Brazil after a 2-0 loss to Chile on June 18. Older Azerbaijanis tend to root for Brazil, Argentina, Germany and the Netherlands.
“I’ve been a fan of Holland since I watched the 1978 World Cup when I was only 7,” said Mehdi Guluzade, a 43-year-old physician.
Most politicians have kept their preferences to themselves, although Baku Mayor Hajibala Abutalibov has conceded that he is rooting for Brazil.
Some Facebook posts also suggest that some Azerbaijanis are rooting for Russia to lose – a sentiment that attests to attention paid to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. "Football is not Crimea, where Putin could win thanks to his army,” drily observed one commentator, noting the Russian team’s lackluster performance in its first match on June 17 – a 1-1 draw against South Korea.
In Georgia, a country where former AC Milan star Kakha Kaladze now serves as energy minister, support for Italian football cannot be underestimated. But in the World Cup, Georgia’s sympathies also are split among many teams, including Brazil, Germany and Spain.
One team playing in Brazil that is conspicuously not getting any love from Georgian fans is Russia. Given the two countries’ messy post-Soviet relationship, which includes fighting a five-day war in 2008 war, any loss by Russia, in whatever arena, is a source of delight in Tbilisi.
Georgia’s national team has never made it to the World Cup finals, but that has not prevented this tiny South-Caucasus country of 4.5 million, the host of the 2015Union of European Football Federations’ Super Cup, from being wild about football. After World Cup matches, celebrating fans pour out of cafes, disputes rage online and bets are made. Women, mostly young girls, are increasingly among the viewers.
Both before and after the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse, Georgia produced many football talents, such as Soviet top-league players Davit Kipiani or Aleksandre Chivadze, and post-Soviet stars Shota Arveladze and, of course, Kakha Kaladze.
Kaladze, however, wasn’t able to find time to root for his favorite team, Italy, since he is playing politics now. The 36-year-old energy minister told reporters that he was so busy helping his new team -- the ruling Georgian Dream coalition – win recent local elections that he could not watch any World Cup games.
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