Let me be honest, prior to that point, all I knew about Russia was how cold it was. My understanding of the country was minimal at best. So when this offer came, I was quite unexcited at first. I hoped and prayed that something better would come. If the worst teams in the Spanish, English and Italian leagues had offered me less, I probably would have chosen them over Russia.
My point being, I didn’t think my chances of success was that great in a place I knew next to nothing about. I was also worried that I wouldn’t be seeing my family as much as I thought I would. It was a tough decision to make, but with each passing day it became increasingly clear that no other offers were coming.
Hector advised me to take it up and do my best on getting there. It was only a two year contract and if I played up to my abilities, other teams were sure to notice.
Begrudgingly and after much dilly dallying, I accepted and signed a contract. The pay was good and it would be an opportunity to experience a different country, but in the back of my mind I felt like I had settled for something below my abilities. My top choices had all ignored me and now I was going for the bride that wasn’t even on my radar. I’d be lying if I said I was excited about boarding that plane to my new home. I was already counting down my exit way before reaching my destination. In retrospect I was quite immature. If I had known better, I would have embraced the opportunity, and seen it for what it was… a stepping stone onto something better. Life would definitely have been easier, but alas, I had poisoned my mind before getting there which would start things off on a rocky path.
If only I had gone into the situation with an open mind, more optimistic about what lay ahead. Perhaps I would have realized just how warm Russians were despite their deadly cold winters. Life and the city wouldn’t have looked so gray if I were willing to move past my disappointment of not signing with a big team.
Sadly this was not the case as I was testy from the get go, failing to develop the proper rapport with my new teammates and organization. I must have ostracized all the people who could help me because those first few months were most likely the loneliest in my life. I stayed to myself, rarely going out. Spending my free time skyping my friends and family back home. Since I didn’t do much on the social side, I was able to save a lot of money. The team provided accommodation and transport; there wasn’t much I was spending my checks on.
Practices and games were pretty straightforward. I showed up, did what I had to do and left. Sounds simple right? Sadly not so much. I never went the extra length, never did more than I was supposed to. I saw it as a job, clock in and clock out. The fun was gone. It’s tough to play with joy when you don’t want to be there. I am not trying to justify any of what I did back then. In fact my conduct was quite unprofessional and immature. I acted like a spoiled brat who throws up a tantrum when he doesn’t get what he wants. It was unfair to the people paying my salary, I could have done better. I should have done better!
I quickly wore out my welcome with the team and the coach. Alienating myself from the people I was supposed to be close with. I missed home, my family and friends and no matter how much I tried, where I was just couldn’t compare. We won our fair share of games, the team had a pretty decent squad back then but because of my attitude, my playing time was quite erratic. Today I’d play, only to be benched for the next three games. There was no rhyme or reason to the rotations but I had no choice but to play and shut up. After the season, we had done well enough to qualify for the UEFA cup. It was a pretty big deal for the team and its officials. They felt they were moving in the right direction. I tried to mend some of the bridges I had burned. Year one had started off badly, I needed to rectify that going into year two.
It sorta worked. I didn’t exactly become amicable with my teammates and coach over night, but it didn’t feel like there was a huge chasm of communication between us anymore. Everything changed from that point on. Suddenly the gray skies of Russia started to look bluer. The food had more taste to it and I started to find out there were people actually interested in talking to me. Of course this had always been the case, but due to my poisonous attitude when I had first arrived, none of this had presented itself.
The language issue was still a barrier but you’d be surprised at how much you can comprehend once you put in the effort. Year two was turning out to be better than expected but sadly my love for the country would only last so long. The soccer world was beginning to take notice especially with my play in the UEFA cup. I knew none of this, only focused on helping the team win and cementing my shaky relationship with my employers.
I went from not knowing if I’d play games to being a constant fixture. I wasn’t setting the league on fire by any means, but the goals were coming in. Sometimes more so than others with the highlight of my season being an incredible brace against the best team in the league and by far the richest.
If they were the big trout of the waterways, then we were the small minnows. Whereas their team was loaded with top quality international players with tons of experience; I was the only foreigner on the squad and I was definitely lacking in the experience department. Bottom line, that matchup was akin to David going against Goliath.
I had begun to notice that no matter the country, one thing remained constant and that was the rabid passion of fans for their favorite teams. Russia was no different and this matchup brought out the good and the bad. It was as if nothing else mattered in those days leading up to the game. I couldn’t go anywhere without being told to beat ‘Spartak.’
I had thought the high school championship was a big deal, but this seemed to be taking things to a new level. The media covered it non-stop, the city people talked about it like their livelihoods depended on it. As much as I tried to ignore the chatter, it seemed to find me wherever I went. I was more than relieved when game day finally arrived. I could not wait to put that behind me and move onto something else.
As our team bus made its way to the stadium, I saw fans cheering us on, decked in our team memorabilia from head to toe. I saw the excitement, even from children no older than 5. This was a very big deal to them, and if we somehow won this game, not winning the championship would be forgivable.
I suspected the other side had fans just as passionate. I expected them to be just as energized as our fans were. It’s hard not to get infected by the enthusiasm surging all around you. Your pulse starts beating faster, images of how you expect the game to turn out starts rushing through your head. For me, this one image of scoring a last minute goal kept coming back. There was no escaping it. By the time that commencement whistle was blown, my excitement level was already way above normal.
I will always give credit where it’s due, especially when opposition is involved. In this case though, there’s not much ‘good’ that can be said about our opponents’ tactics that day. I felt bad for the fans that paid good money expecting to see a great game and instead got something else. It’s a shame when players feel that by using intimidating tactics they can dominate the game as they choose. We’d heard that the other team used cheap shots and tricks during play, but we paid no mind to it. As far as we were concerned, with the amount of talent on their team, they could beat anyone at their best.
Boy! Were we wrong?
They fouled hard, hit you when the ref wasn’t looking, baited you into getting angry and trash talked the whole game. It was stunning just how unsportsmanlike they behaved on the field of play. I lost a lot of respect for them that day and I am not sure they can ever regain it. They sullied the game I loved and it pains me to have been a part of such an ugly spectacle.
Whatever their plan was, it worked as they were able to score two goals in the first half. It seemed they were trying to get us of our game and were doing a good job of it. We were too busy complaining and falling for their tricks to implement our usual style of play. I scored in the 41st minute of play, so going into the half we were only one goal down. Unfortunately for us, they were able to score another goal in the 50th minute which pretty much sealed our fate. I managed to score a goal in the 80th minute, but it was too little too late. They scored another, five minutes later, putting the final nail to the coffin. We went home heads slumped that day. It was not a good showing and we wanted nothing more than to put it behind us.