Out with the old…(or: The only good Russian is a White Russian.)

С Новым Годом! Жана Жылынызбен!!! The past year was quite productive for Molapse in the offline world, yet somehow that didn’t translate to this site.  I think I received more comments than there were actual posts :/ Nevertheless I’ve never been too concerned about timeliness (the tagline of the website translates to “Yesterday’s news, tomorrow”), so here is one leftover odd end from 2009 for your enjoyment.

Springtime is here in Almaty and that means more 2010 World Cup Qualifying matches for Kazakhstan. The squad entered the year second from bottom in Group 6. As I said before, KZ has had a history of playing tough at home over the past two years, beating Serbia. In 2008 they began by demolishing perennial giants Andorra 3-0 in August. However, following this good run of form KZ couldn’t quite compete with Ukraine, falling 3-1 to Shevchenko & Co. in October.

On the road they have the habit of running their asses off for the first 45, then falling apart in the second half. In October they surprisingly held England scoreless at Wembley(!) for 52 minutes.The next qualifying match, and first in 2009, was against another former Soviet Republic, Belarus. Played on Wednesday April 1st. Also of note as being the penultimate home match before England will come to visit in June. Molapse was there…

On match day I arrive about one hour early, despite my bus getting caught in Almaty’s horrific rush hour traffic down Satpaev Ave. I flash my shiny new СМИ (press) pass and get waved in by the blue-camoflauged cadets who control the southern gate of the stadium grounds. The pass comes from my gig as a news correspondant, a glamourous way of saying I get paid send SMS updates to European website for every goal, card and sub.

Before heading into the stadium I thought it best to take advantage of the restroom facilities myself before the match began. Near the southeastern corner of the stadium grounds. I spot a round two story structure housing the toilets. I make my way in after paying the 25 tenge ($0.17) fee, and wonder how the English fans coming in June will react to being asked to pay (in Russian) this nominal sums to answer nature’s call. Perhaps the British Embassy should sponsor free use of the restrooms in hopes of avoiding an international incident when the Russian Babushka gets between the bathroom and John Smithwinkle after a one or a dozen pints.

On the second floor I enter a labyrinth of still sparkling white porcelin. There are  different rooms branching off like an ivory honeycomb, each containing rows of gleaming white, almost brand new urinals (sponsored by the British Embassy?). Before I can snap a picture a teenger enters my cell. After getting business done he awkwardly decides to speak to me, «Казахстан победит, да?» (Kazakhstan’s gonna win, right?). Feeling optimistic, I answer with a hearty «Ну, конечно!» (Of course!), adding, «2-0». My friend raises me one, « 3-0 даже!» (Make it 3!) before exiting down the stairs to the grounds. That about sums up the attitude of the Kazakhstani fans.

The view from the press box.

I pass through the new special designated press entrance (through the stadium’s offices, rather than the general seating) and four (4!) more security checks before entering the press section in the middle of the west stamnd. Several Belarusian journos are seated in the covered press box (with tables and outlets for laptops), but I take a seat in front of them. First things first, I needed to send the lineups to Europe Central, and I borrow a copy of the from one blond haired visitors. Having, to my knowledge, never met a Belarusian, he is exactly as I pictured one to be. Average height, a little slim, with medium length bright blond hair. To complete the look he is wearing rectangular, shaded eye glasses and a bright red Belarus football scarf. Like a Russian, but somehow even more russian.

Dass ein gutes Wortspiel!

Before the match begins I take survey of the stadium. There’s almost as many people as for the Ukraine match, but whereas the Ukrainian fans had a decent showing, there’s hardly any Belarusian supporters. Behind me is the covered West stand, with the «VIPs» shelling out up to 3000 Tenge ($20) for seats for tonight’s match (Note: the prices for the England match would be much higher). Across the field, in the East stand, sit some of the organized fan groups.  Some clever supporters put up a banner punning the fact that both teams have German coaches named Bernd:

I spend the next 20-30 minutes frantically typing the player’s names into my cell phone, and with last names like Nusserbayev, Zhumaskaliyev and Verkhovtsov among the ranks, this is no easy work. Sasha, the FFK’s Press Officer, asks me why I’m standing, and tells me that my pass allows me to sit in the press box. Not wasting such a privelege, I take place between a local reporter and an older Belarusian journalist. This one fulfulls my other stereotype of Belaus, old, stern and authoritative, complete with a moustache…hm..no it couldnt be…

“So then I says to Mabel, I says…”

The match begins, with Kazakhstan in home blue and Belarus in bright white. The latter display some crisp passing early on but stumble in front of the KZ goal and, on the counter it is the home team’s Rinat Abdullin who strikes first! Being awhile since Kazakhstan have enjoyed a lead the energy of the crowd picks way up. Another quality chance for KZ quickly follows: after a second Belurusian goal mouth scramble the blues respond with a break away down the left. They have a 2-on-2 in the Belarusian 6-yard box but the weak centering pass gets intercepted by the defender and cleared.

By about the 30th minute another unforeseen problem enters my mind. While being mindful enough to go to the bathroom before the match, I forgot to eat dinner. Vendors walk through the stadium selling beer, juice and water in large plastic cups, but no food. And I can’t leave the action until the break due to my ‘serious’ journalistic responsiblities. Luckily the remainder of the half is uneventful. The crowd, similarly looking for their own excitement, start the wave at the 37th minute, making 3 full passes around the stadium.

At the halftime whistle it’s 1-0 to Kazakhstan, and I run out to beat the crowds and get some grub. The stadium grounds holds several food stalls, and at one I drop 170 Tenge ($1.12) on two pirozhkis (fried dough stuffed with minuscule amounts of meat or potatos). I  quickly devour them. Like most meals in KZ, my palatte is unsatisfied, but I’ve gained enough calories to keep me alive. Coming back to the press box I take a seat, wipe the oil of my hands and start texting my friend, asking if he wants some doner kebab after the game. I am hardly finished when two minutes in Alexander Cleb (as spelled on the official team sheet), pounces on the ball to strike the equalizer for Belarus.

It just gets uglier from there. It seems to me that instead of spending the halftime break strategizing, the Kazakh team instead scarfed down greasy pirozhkis. Seven minutes later Belarus scores another goal. In the 57th another. In the 64th a fourth is added. Four goals in 16 minutes put an end to any Kazakhstan hopes. The sudden swing of events creates tension on the field, including some minor scuffles. Our referee is a bit tolerant, and the teams escape with two Yellow Cards. The Belarusians stick the nail in the coffin in the 88th minute with a fifth goal. Despite the fact that doner is still on my mind, and the fifth goal not making much of a difference, I feel the responsibility to send the goal report immediately. Somewhere in the world (I imagine in some dark and windswept Antarctic Research Base) are Belarusian following the match. These poor lost souls, far from home, are depending on my SMSes to bring them some cheer; and an excuse for another celebratory shot of vodka.

The match ends 5-1. The crowd files out. They seem justifiably more subdued than after the loss against Ukraine, losing more handily to a lesser opponent. Even so, there were still some chants, screaming and honking along the streets as I made my way for some long awaited doner.


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