Thursday, July 28, 2011

World Cup Qualifier: Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan

Even in this far-flung corner of the globe - where there'd be dragons, if there were dragons - there's a FIFA outpost. I went to a World Cup qualifying match this afternoon between Kyrgyzstan and its relatively giant neighbour, Uzbekistan, a little wary of what was to be. You might know that in June 2010, there was a terrible spree of ethnic violence in Osh, where many people died and over 100,000 Uzbeks fled Kyrgyzstan. These circumstances have become very politicised, with many Kyrgyz people rejecting the independent and UN findings that labelled the events as "ethnic cleansing". I don't propose to write about the situation here, since many people have done so and this is not the forum for it: but, as you can imagine, one of the symptoms is ongoing tension between Kyrgyz and Uzbek people. Thus, it was something of a relief to turn up at the 'stadion' and find hundreds of police lining the stands, plus a platoon of soldiers who marched periodically around the circumference of the field. There was also a posse of horses and German shepherd dogs on standby.

As it turned out, there wasn't much to worry about. Most of the players for Uzbekistan were ethnic Russians rather than Uzbeks, and the Kyrgyz crowd, for the most part, wasn't really sure how to act. They certainly didn't resemble your typical European spectators, although some enterprising people had brought drums, and a couple of people even went to the trouble of bringing flags. There was some booing and bottle throwing at the foreign national anthem, but the scowling police did much to dampen spirits.

The game wasn't much to speak of - 3-0 to Uzbekistan, who are something of a powerhouse in the Asian football region - but I found it very illuminating for other reasons. First off, when entering the arena, we were searched for bottles, which was perfectly acceptable since the same thing happens at AFL matches and at sports events all over the world, presumably. However, this was notable because they didn't want us to discard our water or our bottles - they wanted us to throw out our bottle caps. Incomprehensible, not to mention inconvenient, but we did so. (Sometimes I think that people here have seen a Western idea or practice from a distance and decided to implement it without fully understanding the theory behind the idea or practice). Anyway, with a bemused shrug, we nursed our bottletop-less bottles up to the top of a stand, and settled in with a program. As people began filling up the seats, however, it became clear that we'd misunderstood the point of the printed program; no one could have cared less about its contents. They were too busy covering their chairs in programs so that no part of their bodies would touch any part of the seats. I saw one fellow with about fifteen programs spend all of five minutes carefully arranging them all over his chair. Whether this was a cleanliness issue, I don't know, since they weren't particularly dirty chairs, but I accepted this confusing practice with equanimity and even put my program to similar use.

The Kyrgyz team had a scruffy, brave, but scoreless first half, and grew progressively demoralised as the Uzbeks began scoring in the second. It was sad to note that many people started to leave as soon as two goals had been scored against their team; again, it seemed to show a misunderstanding of the game. Indeed, as the game drew to a close, people began throwing things on to the pitch, either out of boredom or disgust, it was difficult to tell. However, on the whole, when compared to British hooliganism or Brazilian exuberance, the Kyrgyz crowd was very sedate. Later, we speculated as to the apparent lack of passion or emotional involvement of the spectators - many seemed disengaged - and thought that perhaps in Soviet times, obvious expressions of emotion or passion were discouraged and perhaps even dangerous. It might take another generation or two before people can truly let themselves engage in events such as this; engagement such as Europeans might recognise, anyway.

So it is with pride that I can say I've been to a World Cup qualifying match, and if Uzbekistan should happen to do well in 2014, you can say that you knew they would, since you heard it first here.

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