GAME OF THE PEOPLE headed to the Austrian Tirol for its summer training camp (Manni’s hotel in Mayrhofen) with the intention of having a complete holiday from football before the 2017-18 season got underway.
Within an hour of arriving at our hotel, a procession of green track-suited young men walked into the hotel reception, eager for food. “How did you get on?”, someone shouted to them. “We win 2-1,” came the reply in clipped English.
I quickly found out that the 2-1 victory was against Romania’s Universitatea Craiova, who finished fifth in the Romanian league in 2016-17. And the green track suits belonged to Russia’s FC Ufa. And there was more. “Apparently, Ajax are over at the Elisabeth Hotel,” said someone in reception. “They have ‘Welkom’ signs up outside.”
Over the course of the week, we came across Young Boys Bern in nearby Fügen and shared a walking path back to Zell-am-Ziller with their players who were speeding past on bicycles. It seemed that wherever we went, we bumped into footballers. Some strategically-placed stickers suggested that PSV Eindhoven and Standard Liege had been in town at some point in the past.
But our “home” team was Ufa, a little-known Russian outfit from the republic of Bashkortostan. Ufa is Russia’s 11th largest city, with a population of 1.1 million and a reputation as one of the better cities to do business in. One of its claims to fame is that ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev grew up in Ufa.
But what of the football team? It’s not even seven years old yet and 2017-18 will be its fourth in the Russian Premier League. In 2016-17, the Gorozhane (townspeople) finished seventh, their best ever placing.
Ufa’s head coach is none other than Sergei Semak, a Ukrainian-born former midfielder who was capped 65 times by Russia. After a spell as assistant and caretaker manager at Zenit St.Petersburg, not to mention a short spell as the number two of the Russian national team, Semak was appointed manager of Ufa in December 2016.
In his early career, playing for Presnya and Asmaral, he was managed by Konstantin Beskov, a member of the famous Dynamo Moscow team that toured England in the 1940s. Semak considers Beskov to be among the most influential coaches he was worked for, although he’s rubbed shoulders with other great names, including the great Valeriy Lobanovskyi and Oleg Blokhin.
Semak spent a decade playing the CSKA Moscow, winning the Russian title in 2003. He subsequently played for Paris St. Germain, FC Moscow, Rubin Kazan and Zenit. His first game in charge at Ufa was in March 2017 when his team beat Terek Grozny 1-0. They finished seventh and reached the last four of the Russian Cup. “Our team has no stars,” said Semak. “We rely on hard work, a strong defence, fitness, discipline and a very good team spirit.”
He admitted that it is hard for Ufa to compete with the more monied clubs in Russia. “We have four or five clubs who have much bigger resources, teams like Spartak, CSKA and Zenit. We don’t have that kind of money,” he said.
Ufa are partly owned by Russian’s telecoms company Rostelecom, but their attendances average around 7,000 at their 15,000 capacity Neftyanik Stadium. The average for the Russian Premier is 11,000 and the best supported club is Spartak, with an average of 33,000.
So what does he anticipate in 2017-18? “I would, of course, like to challenge for Europe, but we have to remember who we are competing against. If we show continued improvement, we will be pleased,” said Semak with an air of realism.
He is quite outspoken about the current state of Russian football. Although admitting that the top league is in reasonable condition in terms of quality, he hints that the vast wealth in the Russian game is not necessarily being spent wisely. “Young players do not have the motivation to improve or stretch themselves. They can earn top money in Russia so they do not feel the need to move abroad to get international experience. So they do not broaden their outlook or improve.This is not good for the national team.”
Hence, Russian clubs fill their ranks with foreign imports. Last season’s champions, Spartak, had half a dozen foreigners in its line-up at any one time. Ufa’s team is predominantly Russian, although Semak can call on two fleet-footed Nigerians, Kehinde Fatai and Sylvester Igboun (known as Sly). Semak considers Igboun “a big talent” and also points to midfielder Dmitry Stotsky and youngster Ivan Oblyakov as key performers. But importantly, he underlines the team ethic as being Ufa’s most compelling element.
Certainly, the mood among the squad seemed very positive in Mayrhofen. It’s a young team – 10 members of the squad under the age of 23 – and full of high spirits, as residents at the hotel found out when Oblyakov was given a birthday cake to mark his 19th birthday!
“It has been a good training camp,” said Semak. “The weather has been fine, the facilities good and we have had two useful games (they beat Utrecht 1-0 after facing the Romanians). It has been an ideal preparation for our league, which starts in a week’s time.”
As Ufa prepared to travel to face Arminia Bielefeld for their final friendly, Ajax were walking around town on a PR exercise. They face Werder Bremen at the nearby Hippach stadium on Saturday July 8, but the game was abandoned after Abdelhak Nouri collapsed was taken to hospital. Fortunately, the youngster is now recovering.
The Tirol is a popular area for clubs in their pre-season training programme. In fact, towns like Mayrhofen pay clubs to visit them. This may seem strange, but it can bring to life resorts that are livelier in the winter months and it is a positivie PR exercise. The presence of Ufa and Ajax in Mayrhofen certainly added to the Game of the People experience, although there is no more idyllic region in central Europe to take a break, with or without football.
A special thanks to Ufa coach Sergei Semak for his time.