I’ve watched live games of football in twenty very different countries around the world. Belarus to Belgium. Rwanda to Romania. Slovakia to Switzerland. Turkey to Tunisia. Macedonia to Mansfield. Not sure how Mansfield crept in there. But for all my thirty-four trips to Kyrgyzstan, I had never managed to see a game in this glorious, mountainous, Central Asian country. Until this week. Kyrgyzstan had been placed in a World Cup cum Asian Cup “Preliminary Joint Qualification Round 2” group (whatever that means) with Japan, Tajikistan, Mongolia and Myanmar. Qualifying is a long, arduous and protracted process. The World Cup finals don’t take place in Qatar until 2022, and they’ll have to wait yet another twelve months for the Asian Cup finals in China.
But this evening, Kyrgyzstan were playing the red-hot group favourites, Japan, at the Spartak Dolen Omurzakov Stadium, Bishkek, on the night before I was due to fly home. And the previous week my good friends, who know nothing about football and care even less, had kindly stood, patiently, albeit with some bewilderment, in a long queue to acquire two tickets, one for me and one for my British colleague. The length of the queue had taken them by surprise. “I didn’t know football was so popular in our country,” they told me later. Each ticket cost 500 Som (£5.55), which they kindly refused to let me pay for. “It’s our gift to you both”.
I had to be at the airport by 02.30 the following morning, and was therefore glad to learn that the game had been brought forward from 21.00, to a much more reasonable 17.15. With our guest house just a few blocks walk away, after the game I would still manage a couple of hours sleep and a shower before starting my 24-hour journey home.
The police, accompanied by a large number of armed military personnel, had closed several of the streets surrounding the stadium well before the game. Thursday evening rush hour in Bishkek rapidly became even more chaotic than usual. Walking became the obvious, and only, option, as 15,000 people descended on the open bowl that is by far the largest arena in The Kyrgyz Republic. Built in the Soviet era, with little attention paid to it since, it has faded, dusty red, blue and yellow plastic seats on either side, and a few more rows of blue seats well behind one goal. Although how people seated way behind that goal could see anything, I’m not sure.
The stadium is used for athletics, and for other festivals and sports. Once, years ago, I recall wandering into the same stadium and seeing a few minutes of exhibition American football here. But tonight, it was real football, and the atmosphere was great, albeit quite different from the atmosphere at matches I’ve been to in other parts of the world. I would call this crowd ‘naïve’. No hint of snobbery or condescension intended in this expression. Rather, I observed a very attractive innocence and excitement about them. Football crowds in other parts of the world can often be hugely men-dominated, cynical, tough, macho. But this was a party, a celebration, a novel event that somehow local people wanted to get caught up in, just for the fun of it.
Outside the ground were makeshift trestle tables filled with Kyrgyz sweets and pirozhki for sale. Enterprising guys were selling the bright red and yellow Kyrgyz national flags, glamourous girls were giving away large cardboard hands for people to wave, and a four meter tall inflatable plastic figure danced to loud music, in an attempt to attract people to an area where you could have your photo taken under a spotlight, while ticker tape fell all around you. And police. Hundreds of them, none of them looking like they really knew why they were there or what they should do.
Thankfully the weather this evening was dry and relatively mild, as there was no shelter for any of the 15,000 spectators. Inside the stadium, we found our way to our seat. Bishkek’s Koleso Obozreniya (Ferris wheel) peeped over the opposite stand, as if trying to sneak a free view of the game. The nearby Presidential White House stood out boldly to our right, its majesty and solid authority slightly diminished by the erratic flickering of its faulty roof-line floodlights. To the south, the glorious snow-covered Tien Shan mountain range offered a wonderful backdrop to this colourful scene.
I guess the crowd was mostly men, but many young women and plenty of children had also come to join the fun. There was no segregation of rival supporters, and sitting in front of us was a handful of Japanese fans. Some were speaking to the locals in Russian, and I guessed they were either students living in Bishkek, or maybe Japanese Embassy workers. One such girl had crayoned a big, almost round, red dot on a white piece of A4 paper, which she waved occasionally and with vague patriotic intent in the air, in between taking about ten photos per minute throughout the game. These Japanese chatted easily with the Kyrgyz men sitting next to them, who they clearly already knew. However, a few of the 'away' fans had travelled from afar for the game. A handful of them were on my plane to Dubai the next morning.
The game, which was refereed by Saudi Arabian officials, was preceded by the usual singing of both nations’ anthems. A large and energetic cheerleader, armed with two flags which he swung around wildly on a high pole, whipped up the crowd. “Kyr-gyz-stan! Kyr-gyz-stan!” Even the Japanese girls joined in with enthusiasm. I guess if you are supporting both teams, you can’t really lose.
The game was lively. The Kyrgyzstan players, many of them Russian ethnic and playing their club football in Belarus and Russia, were fast going forward, but chaotic and disorganised in defence. But every time a Kyrgyzstan player had the ball at his feet, the women and children squealed, and the men shouted their encouragement. Every time Japan had the ball, the crowd gently, almost obligingly and with good grace, booed. Jeering politely is quite an art.
The assembly was temporarily deflated when after about 40 minutes, the Kyrgyz goalkeeper clumsily felled a Japanese forward, and Japan scored from the penalty spot. However, this blow to their morale was short-lived, and the cheering and squealing began again in earnest well before half time.
My half time visit to the toilet is worth a mention. I spent the fifteen minutes break in a massive scrum of about 10,000 men who were trying to get through the one and only set of double doors that were the entrance to the stadium’s one and only toilet. Hundreds heaved and pushed from the outside, as though that would make the doors somehow wider. And once inside and the cliental having performed, the same double doors somehow had to suffice as the exit. It was all very good humoured, with jokes being cracked that made everyone laugh, including me, even though I didn’t understand them, and could hardly breathe in the crush. I completely lost my colleague in the chaos but, after about fourteen of the fifteen minutes' break, triumphantly re-emerged into the open with bladder empty and body more or less in one piece, and met up with him again as we approached our seats for the second half.
Again, when Japan scored a second goal, early in the second half, local shoulders dropped. But before long, every move was being cheered on once more. The party continued as darkness fell. The players were forgotten for a while as several times a Mexican wave swept around the ground. Then hundreds of people all over the ground collectively waved the lights from their cell phones, before a promising Kyrgyzstan attack refocused people onto the reason they were there. I sensed that even if Kyrgyzstan had pulled back just one consolation goal at the very end, the ground would have erupted. But they didn’t, and it finished 0-2 to a calmer and, if the truth be known, more accomplished Japan team. But a huge applause at the end signified that the locals were still very proud of their boys, and I’m not surprised. The lads done great, although I’m not completely sure how to say that in Kyrgyz.
Breaking all the FCO rules about foreigners not going out on the streets of Bishkek at night, and with a plethora of the evening’s colourful images whizzing round in our heads, we walked contentedly the few blocks back to our guest house. Rows of police, still presenting as a curious cross between idle, authoritative and bemused, thickly lined the first couple of hundred meters of our journey, but gradually the buzz of people and the bright impact of the floodlights faded behind us, tree lined streets were opened once more to traffic, and the city returned to its shady, quiet, albeit slightly creepy and threatening, night-time normal.
...watched Ipswich Town home and away until moving to Kettering in 1983, since when I have followed Kettering Town. If I'm not watching KTFC, I tend to seek out a game on a ground I have not previously visited.
...featured in the Kettering Town match-day programmes in the 2021-22 season.
Kettering; verb. The present continuous tense of the verb 'to ketter', as in "I know I am, I'm sure I am, I'm Kettering till I die". Or, as our fans sang once on a rain-soaked open terrace in Charlton, "I'm Kettering till I dry".
We are required to be pessimists. Being a pessimist is a large part of the enjoyment.