Box of tricks

Korobka, aka cage, is Russia’s answer to those who question its footballing culture

Street Art: Victor Tarasenko at a korobka in St Petersburg | Reuben Joe Joseph Street Art: Victor Tarasenko at a korobka in St Petersburg | Reuben Joe Joseph

THERE IS A slight drizzle as I exit the Chkalovskaya metro station to visit a nearby football ground, or korobka. Victor Tarasenko has just wound up a street football session with a couple of kids, and is talking to their mothers. He finds a small cafe nearby and we sit down to discuss Russian street football.

The mission was to find out whether Russia really did lack a footballing culture as the media abroad paints it. But, what keyboard warriors probably haven’t seen are the korobkas—caged football pitches in nearly every neighbourhood.

Korobka means box. And, these boxes are where street football is played in Russia. In korobkas, they play by their own rules, but there is one common rule. Whichever side concedes two goals, vacates the field; the next team in challenges the winners. If there are just two teams, the losing side stands with their backs towards the pitch; the winning team then kicks the ball on to the row of rumps.

Russian street football is rooted in the movement that was kicked off in the 1990s in Amsterdam by famous freestyler Edward van Gils, says Victor. Dressed in baggy clothing, with an inverted cap, long hair and wearing a particular kind of shoes, Victor points at himself and says that is how the players would look like. Loud music would be on while they play. Graffiti on the surrounding walls, illegal as they are, add to the atmosphere.

Victor is a leader of Street Madness, a street football team that organises tournaments in Moscow and St Petersburg. The format they love playing the most is panna, which involves one-on-one challenges on a small circular pitch, with two small goals on opposite sides.

Victor, 26, who has a regular day job in an advertisement firm, became obsessed with street football five years ago. After joining Street Madness he started his own informal street football school in St Petersburg.

“The problem with professional football training in Russia is that it is very much like the Soviet style, where they are only taught to pass and there is very little scope for creativity,” says Victor. Through his street football school he plans to bridge the gap between skill-based playing and “boring” playing. Four of Victor’s wards have gone on to join the youth academy of Zenit Saint Petersburg—the biggest club in the city, and one that often represents Russia in the UEFA Champions League.

Back in Moscow, I meet Ivan Saprykin, the founder of Street Madness. In summer, the Street Madness crew participate in international street football tournaments and organise panna tournaments in Russia. In winter, they open the street football schools.

“Korobkas are a part of our lives,” says Ivan. “For every kid in Russia who dreams of playing football, the dream starts in that box.” Ivan speaks to me through a translator, Aksel Mutlu, who I later learn is the Russian freestyle champion. Ivan adds that even some coaches of youth teams prefer training the kids in korobkas, rather than in bigger football pitches.

When I visited a korobka in central Moscow, there wasn’t anybody playing. But, soon, a stream of youth slowly took to the field. A Kyrgyz national sitting next to me tells me in broken English that the players’ life is incomplete without the korobka.

Then, he turns to me and asks with a sly smile: “What does India play? Bollywood?”