With 4,000 miles seperating them and the country's capital, it is safe to say that Spartak Vulkan of Russia are pretty remote. Kevin O'Flynn looks at the the team nearer Japan then any other part of Europe
Find Moscow on your map and head east. Take a breather after 375 miles – Torquay to Middlesbrough – and keep going. After 700 miles you reach Second Division (that is, third-level) Zenit Chelyabinsk. Another 2,200 miles and you’re in Siberia – Lokomotiv Chita, a mid-table First Division club. Go on past Siberia to Kamchatka, the sheep’s tail of a peninsula that hangs down towards Japan in the far east of Russia.
There, a few hundred yards from the Pacific Ocean, 4,000 miles from Moscow and 12 time zones away from England, is the ramshackle ground of what was once Europe’s remotest professional football club – Spartak Vulkan. It’s not much now. Five years after leaving the Russian league the club is lucky to get 100 people to watch a match, the pitch is overgrown and yellow flowers grow by the touchline. The caretaker who sleeps in the wooden hut at the front watches television instead of the game, the stadium cat stalks the ground with positive impudence and the fans slap their heads crying “Aaah, the grass got in the way” when a player muffs a pass at the treacherous evergreen end of the pitch.
But its rundown state doesn’t impair the fact that there is a spirit still alive – if only just – and that people remember and support what was once the greatest team in an area larger than virtually all the countries in western Europe. “From Moscow to Magadan/There’s no stronger team than Vulkan” chants one fan with only the merest touch of irony as his voice echoes round to the spectator on the other side of the pitch.
Kamchatka has always been a name and a place with a magical allure. In Russia if a child gets a low mark and is sent to the back of the class they’re told “sidi na kamchatka” (sit in Kamchatka), because the peninsula is the furthest point you can get from pretty much anywhere in Russia.
But its mystery is rooted in more than just distance or inaccessibility. Kamchatka bubbles with active volcanoes, has a thousand-odd earthquakes a year and brims with some of the rarest wildlife in the former Soviet Union. Another lower division Russian club has the nerve to have a live bear in a cage on hand as its mascot for every home game. Vulkan has no need – spit in the wilds outside the city and you’re more than likely to hit a bear. Lush rolling hills perch prettily on one side of Spartak’s stadium. Beyond them volcanoes, one still active, loom large over the city of Kamchatsky Petropavlovsk, the capital of Kamchatka.
The club is now on its third life. The first two were brief, if bright, four-year spans in the Soviet and Russian leagues. Founded in 1970, they collapsed four years later because of the expense of travelling. Revived in 1989 in what was still the Soviet league, Vulkan died in 1994, in what had become the Russian league, for the same monetary reasons. But despite the difficulties, they were quite good. They came second in the league twice in their first four years of existence, just missing out on the play-offs for promotion to the First Division – one level below the elite.
The Russian Second Division is divided into regional zones, but Vulkan, a week away by boat from the bulk of mainland Russia, still had to fly vast distances to face opponents like Luch Vladivostock (1,250 miles away), or Irtysh Omsk (3,000 miles) in the Far East section. They once even played in Grozny, when it wasn’t the capital of breakaway republic Chechnya but the home of a fine lower-division team, Terek Grozny.
Now the team is just one of many in a local semi-professional competition on the peninsula fighting for the fans’ attentions with the children’s games behind one of the goals. One rival team Molodost (“Youth”) fields a 61-year-old midfielder with dodgy knees and a tattoo of St Basil’s Cathedral on his back. But there still remains a (very small) hardcore of fans who come to matches even if some aren’t quite sure who they are watching.
A pack of local referees gathered to argue over the recent matches before a recent match. Among them is Vladimir Golubets, the self-appointed historian of the club, who sits correcting the league table. He points out the man to his left who used to coach Vulkan in the Seventies, the present-day manager and the son of a famous player. A former national referee, Golubets trots by the sidelines as linesman now, but still remembers Vulkan’s finest moment.
In 1973, a special cup was held for the lower leagues to celebrate 75 years of Russian league football and Vulkan fought their way through to the final, helped by the fact that they progressed through one round when the opposition failed to turn up – sometimes it helps being at the end of the world. Golubets proudly shows off his collection of Vulkan programmes, photographs and newspaper articles, and instantly relives the moment when Alexander Kashuba got the the winning goal.
He is not the only famous Vulkan name. They never had a Platini for a region the size of France but there was once a famous Kalashnikov (Alexander) – not surprisingly he played in attack – who before moving to these very distant pastures had played for Spartak and Lokomotiv Moscow. Alexander Gerasimov, the team manager, is the guardian of the Vulkan flame. Gerasimov, a small, slightly tubby man, watches his team with intense interest through his sunglasses. He refuses to speak to me at first as, understandably, he’s trying to watch the game, but after a business call on his mobile and his side’s fourth goal he wanders over for a chat.
“We’re talking about uniting to represent the whole Kamchatska region,” said Gerasimov, nodding happily as the team hit the final goal in their 7-1 win. “But the obstacles are huge.” Even though Uefa’s last and most remote outpost is not going to be travelling anywhere for some time, Vulkan is still alive. Maybe one day the kids behind the goal will stop playing and start watching.
From WSC 153 November 1999. What was happening this month