You take your son down the Gunners. You wrap him up in 4 layers and the same red and yellow scarf you wore as a boy to protect him from the -10 degrees. Boris at the kiosk hands over the sunflower seeds, yesterday’s newspaper to sit on and vodka to suppress the bitter cold. Teenage gopniks catch your eye opposite the underpass, grimy faces squatting by a burnt out car. They spit in your direction, your hand tightens around your son’s.
This is Arsenal, but not as you know it.
FBTG would never dream of dedicating a full 800 word post to a certain Woolwich team, but we’re all over FC Arsenal Tula. The Russian city of Tula has a population of around 500,000 and its Football team are clinging on for dear life in the Russian Premier League (bottom of the league at time of writing). A city close to Moscow by Russian standards, miles away by everyone else’s, Tula also has links to the arms industry (hence the name) but is far better known for that most manly of industries; steel manufacturing. After a huge array of name changes under Communist rule, FC Arsenal Tula have now celebrated 32 years since the Tula Football team first adopted the moniker “Arsenal”.
The past five years have been mildly successful for the middle-of-the-road club that has achieved little in the Football pyramid of the world’s largest nation. The team fought bitterly for promotion to the top division of Russian Football in the 2013 / 2014 season. The city of Tula therefore enjoyed the highest quality domestic Football available for the first time ever during the 2014 / 2015 season. Sadly it wasn’t to last and Tula were relegated, only to achieve promotion once again back immediately afterward last season. Thus the Gunners are now once again competing in the Russian Premier League, albeit with little success, being the team that currently suffers from having both the record biggest home and away league loss so far this year.
Tula fans are a wild bunch. They do not come close to the Muscovite teams you may be more familiar with in terms of numbers travelling to games, but the Gunners are known for their aggression and resolve. Tula fans also have a friendship with fans of Kuban Krasnodar, albeit a farely young one. Are the FC Arsenal Tula fans aware that they share their name with a slightly more celebrated English Football club? Certainly. In 1984 when the name was first established, players and fans of Arsenal Tula arrived in Krasnogorsk to play a cup game. Driving on the way to the ground, one thing repeatedly caught their attention; posters had been printed advertising a game against “Arsenal London”.
But extraordinary Football anecdotes seem to flourish in this part of the world. A Tula game was delayed in 1980 when the referee failed to arrive on time. However, after showing up, the arbitrator immediately awarded Arsenal Tula a penalty to appease the home fans. The Tula faithful duly spent the remainder of the game claiming him as one of their own. August 25th 1987 saw a record home attendance for Arsenal Tula. But the sudden spike in numbers had nothing to do with glamorous opponents, new players or promotion chances; it was the first time that Arsenal Tula held a half-time raffle, the main prize being a Zaporozhets ZAZ-968M (a soviet car), which attracted a record-breaking amount of fans to the ground. Or maybe you prefer the legendary story of an away day in Khankendi, back when various Armenian Football teams were incorporated into the Russian second divison as Armenian-Azeri relations flared (Khankendi is now recognised by most governments as part of Azerbaijan). It took Tula players and staff 3 days and 2 different train journeys to arrive at the ground, but the official referee never made it in time for kick-off, getting hopelessly lost. A local Armenian referee was found immediately as a replacement, who “generously” awarded his compatriots two penalties within 26 minutes. The list goes on.
Back to the modern era, and life in Tula is bleak. A struggling group on the pitch represents a struggling group off it. Being situated fairly close to the capital has disadvantages as well as advantages, and the modest-sized town cannot hold the young and talented for long. Tula is victim of an intense brain drain to Moscow, which harms the area in terms of development. A shrinking population is not helping the economy, which in turn triggers all related social problems; alcohol and substance abuse, xenophobia, violence. The people of Tula simply cannot keep up with Moscow’s enormous amount of high-flyers, sporting or otherwise, and the city and its population will continue to slide backwards for the forseeable future.
Clearly a famous name doesn’t guarantee success. But still, a better matchday than the Emirates.