Frank Martin recalls his brief time as the great new hope of the Kazakh UPS 7 a-side team and how Oleh Luzhny transcends borders
In a lay-by on a motorway on the outskirts of Alma-Ata, beneath the Tian Shan mountains of South-Eastern Kazakhstan, the residue of soviet life is palpable: all the cars are Ladas and the road is flanked by apparently pointless reams of industrial piping, which emerges haphazardly from behind the shrubbery at the curb. The only other figure standing on the side of the road is a woman selling apples, seemingly to no one.
I was here to meet a man I had first encountered in a sauna two days earlier, during an introduction more innocent than the first part of this sentence suggests. Aslan, a formidably social man from Alma-Ata, had bragged – from across a room hotter than can possibly be healthy – about the greater temperature of the Kazakh sauna compared to its Russian counterpart, which he assured me was, like some sort of worrying lifeboat, for ‘women and children’.
The sauna had maybe a dozen other inhabitants and conversation soon moved onto football. It was established that I had the misfortune of being an Arsenal supporter. What proceeded was the sound of birch bark exfoliation – a loud thwacking – punctuated by the names of a host of different Arsenal players from the last twenty years, along with an eclectic mix of somewhat dated pop-culture babes. Henry and Bergkamp naturally got a mention, while Victoria Beckham and Kate Winslet both received nods of approval from the surrounding men. Others in the sauna began to participate and the team sheet grew more obscure: North London greats such as Sylvain Wiltord, Nelson Vivas and Oleh Luzhny all received honourable mentions. Even Phillipe Senderos was acknowledged, in a way that I couldn’t help but feel he had not really earned.
After the sauna, we moved to the cafeteria of the bath house which served beer, vodka, milk balls and fish. Kazakhstan is a landlocked country – a fact reflected in the taste of this seafood. Under the cold, dazzlingly bright lights of the otherwise empty cafeteria, the meal felt like a nightmarish exercise in veterinary surgery. It was over this food that Aslan invited me to a seven-a-side game with his colleagues at the Kazakh branch of UPS. It seemed like an opportunity to excuse myself from the meal organically, so I accepted and left.
I was given an address and found a man where I was staying who was willing to drive me to the suburbs of the city. The journey ended when he pulled up in the lay-by and said abruptly ‘Здесь’ – ‘here’. I got out, he drove off, and I was left undecided as to whether this was an industrial estate or a recreation centre – a surprisingly common soviet ambiguity – so I decided to wait. Ten minutes or so later, Aslan appeared from behind a hedge at the side of the road and beckoned me to follow him through the foliage. I left the apple seller and forced my way through a thicket until I appeared on the other side of the greenery, away from the road. After a bit of wading, there before me, in an oasis surrounded by course metal work and the traditional Kazakh decorative piping, was a patch of well-worn but still strikingly green astroturf. Standing on it were twenty or so members of the Alma-Ata branch of the United Parcel Service.
The sides were divided up by a middle-aged UPS manager who I was warned not to tackle for the sake of the career prospects of my teammates. I was offered a role in holding midfield. Given the appearance of my opponents, I felt optimistic about my dominance in this part of the pitch. The opposition’s attacking line up consisted of a gangly forward who, I was told, was responsible for much of the paperwork relating to international shipping and parcel administration. What little I saw of him in the warm up gave me cause for hope, as he shanked a ball over the caging around the pitch and was told to go and get it by four of his colleagues. A scenario with which I am painfully familiar. Moreover, he insisted on wearing his brown UPS work cap while he played, thereby removing what I had by this point assumed to be his chief attacking asset: his aerial prowess. I am not a tall man. His teammate upfront was an attacking midfielder: a stocky Russian expat with a beer belly that I foolishly assumed would impede his athleticism.
I was given an address and found a man where I was staying who was willing to drive me to the suburbs of the city. The journey ended when he pulled up in the lay-by and said abruptly ‘Здесь’ – ‘here’. I got out, he drove off, and I was left undecided as to whether this was an industrial estate or a recreation centre – a surprisingly common soviet ambiguity – so I decided to wait.
How wrong I was to underestimate this unlikely duo. The lanky striker was all elbows and arms, his limbs extending relentlessly as if an animation of the pipes surrounding the field. Here before me was a bureaucratic Van Basten, a pen pushing Peter Crouch: somewhat inelegant but unquestionably effective. The overweight Russian midfielder played like a South American, gymnastically weaving and driving, repeatedly waltzing past me before ignoring the two centre-halves behind, his stomach making seemingly impossible movements of its own, as time after time he bore down on our keeper. After each goal, he would celebrate conspicuously with his boss, who was loitering somewhat sheepishly in defence. Evidently, he had known exactly what he was doing when he had picked the teams.
Meanwhile, a vast defender began to make marauding runs through midfield. I had seen him at the beginning of the game and thought happily that he would stay anchored to his end of the turf: he may have eclipsed the opposition’s goal, but at least he stood far away from my deep lying position. But no. This Papa Bouba Diop of central Asian packaging solutions came forward again and again, brushing me aside with ease.
We lost emphatically. Aslan was not affected by the defeat, but his team mates – evidently used to this kind of drubbing – were downtrodden. They had seen in me the hope of some sort of redemption, a new signing to shock their boss and regain for these handpicked underdogs a semblance of dignity from what was clearly a ritual thrashing. Unbeknown to them, their footballing messiah was an English student who had struggled to hold down a starting position in his college’s second eleven. A man whose sporting aspirations dwarfed his technical ability. A true Phillipe Senderos of the Kazakh parcel service’s seven-a-side second team.