Russia – An owner plays for his club

Imagine if Roman Abramovich didn’t just own Chelsea but insisted on playing for them. A 58-year-old compatriot does just that back home, writes Dan Brennan

Picture the scene: on a sub-zero Saturday afternoon, in the Russian Republic of Udmurtia, 1,000km east of Moscow, Gazovik-Gazprom Izhevsk are leading 2-1 at home to Neftekhimik in the final game of the Russian Division Two (Urals-Volga region) season. Then, in the 35th minute, a familiar refrain booms out over the PA system: “Tumaev is entering the pitch!” Ten minutes later Gaz-Gaz are awarded a penalty. Vladimir Tumaev steps up and misses, but seconds later he makes amends, firing home a shot from the edge of the area and his team eventually win the match 3-2. It was Tumaev’s ninth goal in almost 150 competitive matches for Gaz-Gaz. Not a great average for a centre-forward. But then, these days, the 58-year-old’s appearances are generally restricted to cameos from the bench. And nobody is going to drop him – he owns the club.

“Why shouldn’t he play? He’s not getting in the way,” said the then head coach Viktor Slesarev three years ago, possibly with half an eye on his next pay cheque. “Tumaev doesn’t come on unless the outcome of the match is already clear. If a man can still play football at 56, then you can only be happy for him.”

At half-time during the Neftekhimik match, Tumaev was presented with an award by Eduard Morozov of the Russian Official Records Committee and a certificate hailing the “Stanley Matthews of Izhevsk” as the oldest footballer in Russia. An entry in the Guinness Book of Records is expected to follow, confirming him as the oldest pro on the planet. He is certainly one of the most eccentric.

Having founded Gaz-Gaz in 1988 and installed himself as the team’s chairman and star striker at the age of 40, Tumaev engineered their rise through the amateur and regional leagues and into the Russian First Division in 1995. It was an incredible feat, which prompted him to declare that Premier Division football was around the corner. And Tumaev is a man used to getting what he wants. His Izhevsk empire extends far beyond the local football club. The local member of the State Duma, the Russian parliament, he is, through his ownership of the local gas concern Spetsgazavtotrans – a subsidiary of Gazprom, the Russian energy giant – a very wealthy man.

He is also a man that you wouldn’t care to mess with. A karate black belt and expert marksman, Tumaev views himself as a survival expert. “You could drop me anywhere in the forest with just a gun, and I would come out alive,” he brags, sounding worryingly like Gareth from The Office. “And I can cook any dish you name.” He goes on, expanding on the culinary theme: “I prefer eating with my hands. I learnt this in Kazakhstan, where we used to go hunting in the desert and we’d cook and eat the food where we killed it. People think it’s civilised to eat with a knife and fork, but food just doesn’t taste as good that way.”

Tumaev’s engaging disregard for convention was in evidence when, in 2002, he flew to Moscow in his helicopter to receive an award for special services to football. With the great and the good of the Russian sporting world in attendance, he dispensed with the standard speech-making routine, opting instead to entertain the audience by singing his favourite ballad.

“People think because I run a big business, I sit in my office in a bow-tie smoking a cigar. When they see me on the pitch, or shooting my gun, or skiing, their eyes pop out of their heads,” shrugs Tumaev.

“He is a complicated character, but he has a real passion for what he does, and that’s rare in Russia,” reflects another of his former head coaches, Vitali Shevchenko. “The only problem is what he wants and what is possible don’t always match up.”

“I was planning to stop playing this year,” he said on being presented with his latest award by the records committee. “But they keep telling me to carry on until we get the club into the Premier Division.”

The prospect of that happening looks remoter than it once did, following their relegation after eight seasons in the first division. Last season, Gaz-Gaz finished seventh in the third flight, 47 points behind champions Sodovik. But in Tumaev’s world the impossible is always possible. Especially when he can bring himself off the bench to save the day.

From WSC 228 February 2006. What was happening this month