At the eve of the 2018 FIFA World Cup a new personal exhibition by Sergey Novikov named “GRASSROOTS. Amateur Football in Russia” has been opened in the The Lumiere Brothers Center for Photography in Moscow. It is a collection of photographs that depict amateur football leagues and the “one-storied Russia” going out on football fields. The journalist Yekaterina Fomina asked the photographer why he is travelling around provincial stadiums and what role politics plays there.
How did you choose your subjects for the Grassroots project?
I take photographs of football fields throughout Russia — the ones where amateur football players (not professionals) play. The landscape around the field plays a crucial role for me. I do research, check all the existing clubs in the region, watch videos and look at amateur photographs on social media. I am interested in finding new images for my typology — no matter how exotic the city name sounds or how hard it is to get there.
Almost every region in Russia except for the extreme north has its own amateur tournaments. Very often there is more than one — often two or three — football leagues. Let’s count: every administrative region has up to 10 teams, so that means there are around 1,000 amateur football teams in Russia.
I’ve been taking photos for the Grassroots project since 2012; I have already covered 28 regions. The European part of Russia, the Urals and the Far East are already more or less covered, but I haven’t been to Siberia yet. The key feature of this project is strict timing: I have to match my visits to the schedule of the games. And photographing the games is difficult: different matches are often held on the same day, so you have to choose only one game to photograph.
Why did you choose to photograph the teams only during matches, but not the inner life of the team?
I set myself the goal of portraying the Russian landscape through the lens of amateur sports. My project is not only about football — rather, it is about what our modern country is like. Personally, I see my country through the lens of football. I discover it for myself thanks to this project. I was born in the regions and I am aware of what life is like there, but every place I visit is interesting in its own way. The Russian landscape is very diverse.
My project is a research work, digging inside my own self, and an attempt to understand the time and place where I live.
I have been working in project photography for about 10 years. I am also a photo and film editor. From 2006–10 I worked at the PROsport magazine, and that was where my reflection on Russian sports started. I had had enough of the official agenda and official coverage. I was much more interested in Russian everyday life and in what’s happening around the corner.
My first project was about the Moscow football club Torpedo, which had been kicked out of the professional league and was an amateur team for one year. I tried to capture the team’s attitude and understand what that meant for them.
Then I moved along the Volga River — I myself was born on its banks. Traveling along gives you an opportunity to observe the whole of Russia (at least its European part). I was looking for clubs named after the river — the Volga football clubs. I managed to find eight of them, all with very different statuses. I photographed diptychs: a football player and the river in their community. I called this project “FC Volga United.” While traveling, I started to examine the background against which the games took place, as well as the landscape around those fields and stadiums. In my reflections I gradually came up with the idea for the Grassroots project.
What is your audience supposed to learn from your Grassroots project?
The mechanism of the periphery. Even through a stadium photograph you can understand the socio-economic conditions in the region, which is surprising. For me, it is a representation of one-storied Russia.
Taking group portraits of teams, I get a cross-section of a local community, where you can see that people on the team do all kinds of different things — they are sales managers, police officers and, sometimes, racketeers. But for the time of the game they all unite. This is my field research of provincial Russia that I would like to share with an audience.
In my work, I find it important to trace the gap between professional and amateur sports. Everyone I’ve chosen for the project plays on an 11 x 11 stadium, which is an exact copy of professional football. They are amateur players, but with all the attributes of professional football. At the same time, they will never reach professional status — simply for economic reasons. Even if they win the regional cup, they won’t reach any higher level unless they have the money for it.
How do you make arrangements to photograph the teams?
It is difficult to arrange anything on the spot, so I do it in advance via social media. Amateur tournaments have a very flexible schedule: they can be moved for an hour, a day, or the game can be completely cancelled.
Although they are amateur players, they are just as nervous before the game [as professionals], and so are the coaches. It is hard to persuade anyone to go and take photographs right before the match — everyone is busy training. And after the game you find that half of the team has already been replaced, somebody has changed clothes, and everybody has left. If the team lost the game, you won’t make them pose for pictures — the mood is wrong.
Most of the time, teams don’t mind when I tell them I want to come. Very rarely do I get the reaction: “You shouldn’t come see us — our stadium isn’t nice.” But I’ve chosen you precisely for aesthetic reasons!
What is the state of amateur football in Russia today?
Before, every plant and every factory was supposed to have its own team. It was supposed to play a social function — football teams were there to provide entertainment for workers. Today, the reality is such that factories are closing and it’s not the workers anymore who play in amateur teams. Yet, in monotowns, where there is one town-forming business — say, a steel mill — there tends to be a team that represents the enterprise.
There are relatively rich regions, including Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Tatarstan and Krasnodar, where there are two or three football leagues, and they represent different areas. Most of the time there are no problems with football fields there — and there are even special stadium modernization programs. But there are also very poor regions where the number of teams is decreasing; they are just trying to survive. In those cases, teams are made up of enthusiastic people who simply love football. At best, they might be supported by the local city administration.
Nowadays, amateur teams are forced to look for sponsors. Sometimes it results in changes to the team’s name. This year there is a team called Shoe Gallery in the Kaliningrad region. For a couple of years a Personality Development Center played in the Nizhny Novgorod region. The sponsor buys outfits and equipment, puts its logo on them and pays to get the players to the game, since the team often doesn’t have the money even for this.
For the most part, players don’t get any bonuses. There are some teams that get paid at least some bonuses, but it is not the players’ primary source of income. There are very strong teams though — even ex-professionals can be invited there.
The amateur players finish their careers on those teams — very few get to the professional level; people have to go to sports school to be able to do that. Amateur sport in this case is not a social lift — you don’t get any social benefits just because you play on some local team. It’s just a way to spend your free time.
In the regions, the stadium plays a vital role in the life of the community. Cultural and social events, concerts, city holidays and protests all take place there. A stadium is the largest civil building in the city, and it is open and convenient. That’s why football plays a special role in the community. In the regions, practicing football is an activity that young people can spend their time on. And the teams attract supporting groups of girls.
You said that amateur football “makes us think about Bakhtin’s carnival — when the boundaries between the spectator and the performer are blurred, and the festivity (of football) itself is the complete opposite of the semi-official.” Could you explain this idea?
The people who sit at the stadium as spectators of amateur matches are usually players themselves. Sometimes it even happens that when a team is down a person, somebody from the audience can quickly change and run out onto the field. Once, I was being driven to a match by one of the players, who suggested that I should replace a player who was absent that day for at least one half-time.
In amateur sports, there are even some magical elements. There are many things that are invisible in professional football. Everything is less strictly regulated in amateur sports. For example, I was once at a football match in the Murmansk region where the referee was offered bread and salt before the game. A wedding can come and go out on the field to take pictures — because it’s allowed.
The game itself is more emotional: the players get wound up, there is more passion, and there are more unconventional situations that can sometimes even include fights.
For amateur players a game is a celebration; for them it’s not work — they don’t make money playing. They just really want to feel like professional football players, to be part of the team, to become closer to their role models. They can win a cup, and even if it has been bought in a nearby store, for them it doesn’t matter — it is the most meaningful thing in their lives. After the match they don’t spend their time like professional players, who continue practicing. Their celebration continues.
After one of the matches, I was going back on the same bus as the team. We just got round the corner when the bus pulled over near the Pyatorochka grocery store. The coach got his vodka and the younger players got beers. People take it easy, in the game and in life.
Are there amateur football fans?
How do you think the phrase “support your local team” came about? Small teams also have their own groups of active fans. They copy the culture of professional sports: they, too, set off fireworks, translate English chants into Russian and include elements of local identity. But there is one peculiarity: they often have an agreement with the police. The thing is, in small communities everyone knows everyone and no one wants to cause trouble for other people.
What’s more, games are often visited by the traditional “Kuzmichi,” i.e. older fans. They come to the matches because there’s not much to do in the regions. Sometimes people come to gather statistics about the games. Mothers come with children — they are the wives of the players. On average, up to 200 people come to the matches. People find it interesting to keep track of their neighbors’ success.
Do amateur football teams from different regions keep in touch with each other?
In Russia, there are three professional leagues and right below those there is an amateur league. Everything is divided into zones there: the Urals, the Volga region, Siberia and the Far East. At the end of the year, according to the results of the games in all zones, the winners meet and play the final game to choose the best amateur football team in Russia. The winning team then goes to the UEFA Regions’ Cup. In Istanbul last year, a team from the Rostov region took third place among the amateur champions from Europe, and the players were very proud of it.
What is the greatest disappointment of this project?
I’m dreaming of making it to Kirov (in the Murmansk region) to photograph the game against the snowy backdrop of the Apatity. You can take this phenomenal picture only once a year; the snow melts quickly, so you can take it only during the first match of the season. In the photographic sense, this picture means a lot to me. This situation is unusual for Russia because everything is traditionally built in city parks and absolutely standard Soviet-style stadiums. But there, you get a unique landscape.
I once arrived in Kirovsk and they had already put the nets up at the stadium. But right before that, the helicopter with the chief executive of the Apatity (a factory that supported the team) and the senior officials on board had crashed; they were flying to go hunt. The match was cancelled. And I still haven’t had the chance to return on the right day. This year they start on July 10, but most likely the snow will already have melted by that time.
Are politics present in amateur football?
On the grassroots level politics also exists. Local teams are forced to deal with regional governors and the local football federations to which they belong. Not all problems are solved using sports principles. For example, the winning team should make it to the top league. But I know the following cases. The coach is called by the federation’s chairperson, who says: “You know, there is a team that hasn’t passed but we need to support it. There is a good enterprise behind them, and it is growing. You will play in the first one again and will pass them the right to the top league, if that’s alright.” And that’s where the coach has to think: Should I jeopardize the relationship with the locals or should I step back?
I also have another story. I have long tried to get to Degtyarsk, near Yekaterinburg. They had an interesting stadium but nobody had played there in a long time. Back then, the team was called Gornyak, same as the stadium. I kept writing to the city sports committee and waiting for a game. Finally, they told me there would be an athletes’ day at the beginning of August and that a friendly game would take place between their team and the team from a nearby city. I arrived and everything was very formal. After taking portrait photos, the officials gave speeches saying that yes, they were building a new stadium, the sport was developing. Later I realized that elections were going to be held in a few weeks and that the whole football business was organized exactly for that purpose.
Do you think anything will change in amateur sports because of the FIFA World Cup in Russia?
In the cities where I took photos, there was nothing happening — compared with the FIFA World Cup cities. It is rather the cup itself that has inspired the developing players to practice more. Besides, the infrastructure in large cities is changing (but it is clear that amateur players will not play at those new stadiums). In the best-case scenario, amateur players will attend some matches that will take place in those larger cities. So I believe holding the FIFA World Cup in Russia has had an educational function and will expand the amateur players’ vision of football.