Ivan Grebelkin, a 14-year old who lives inside the Arctic Circle in north-west Russia, plays much of his football in the winter snow. He tells us about his love of the game and his life in a region that has a special climate.
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Every month, as part of its #EqualGame campaign, UEFA focuses on a person from one of its 55 member associations. This person is an example of how football promotes inclusion, accessibility and diversity; his or her story exemplifies how disability, religion, sexuality, ethnicity and social background are no barriers to playing or enjoying football.
Snow, especially in large amounts, can have a significant impact on football. It simply makes the game more difficult to play.
Take the Murmansk region inside the Arctic Circle in north-west Russia; the winters in this oblast (administrative region) can be especially harsh. Snow arrives in abundance in the autumn…and stays put for the next several months.
To play football in the Murmansk Oblast would seem to present a somewhat awkward challenge. However, there are those there who love the game so much that they confront the challenge head-on – especially youngsters such as this month’s UEFA #EqualGame personality, 14-year-old Ivan Grebelkin, who lives in Monchegorsk, a town of just over 40,000 inhabitants located on the Kola Peninsula, 145 kilometers south of Murmansk, the regional administrative centre.
“I live in the Arctic Circle,” he says, “a place where you don’t see the sun in the sky that often in winter. Therefore, it’s really cold. There’s also a lot of snow, and the ground is often frozen. We have snow on the ground from October until May.”
“When we have heavy snowfall, you can’t really see anything. If we have strong winds as well, the snow will drift up to your knees.”
“It’s not that warm in summer either, it’s normal to see snow in summer. We experience polar nights in winter, the sun pretty much doesn’t rise. It starts to get dark at about three in the afternoon. It’s really dark. In summer, we have polar days and the sun doesn’t go down at all, pretty much for the whole summer.”
The local population view the particular nature of the conditions with a philosophical air. “People are used to living in these kinds of conditions,” Ivan explains. “So, for us, it’s nothing new. It’s normal to see snow in summer…that doesn’t even come as a surprise to people.”
Football is the crucial key to enjoyment for Ivan and his friends. A budding striker, he gets together with other youngsters to train, play, talk about football and seek constant improvement. His family background is also full of football – father Sergeyis a keen player, while 10-year-old sister Lisa is already a goalkeeper of some promise.
The commitment of Ivan and his friends to playing football is such that, in winter, they sometimes help clear the local football pitch of snow themselves.
If there was no chance of playing on our pitches, then I would probably meet up with friends and go and find somewhere to set up a game.”
Ivan enjoys the camaraderie that his friends share through football. “We have a lot of fun, we laugh a lot. We also talk about everything that has happened over the past week in the footballing world… the best moments, goals, saves.”
Football brings light to Ivan’s eyes. “When I play football, I’m in a great mood for the whole day,” he reflects. “I feel good and fulfilled. When I play, I forget about all my problems, about everything.”
He insists that the weather conditions can actually have a positive effect. “Nothing can get in the way of me playing football. Bad weather doesn’t stop me playing football for a moment… the weather only makes the game more interesting.”
“Also, when I play football in the snow and go out onto the pitch, I get a better feeling for the ball, because it’s harder to dribble the ball around your opponent when there’s snow on the ground.”
Ivan seizes the moment to fully explain the attributes that you need to conquer a difficult winter playing surface. “Firstly, the main difference is that when you play on snow, the ball becomes slippery, and it’s difficult to stay on your feet. The ground is uneven, so that makes dribbling with the ball more difficult. Also, working with the ball becomes trickier.”
“And, when you run, it tires you out twice as quickly, because when you run on a normal pitch, on grass, there’s nothing that can hinder you - but when you run on snow, your feet sink into it, so you get really tired. You need a lot of stamina to play football on snow…therefore, I get better technically, something which will help me down the line. I feel much more at one with the ball. And, after I’ve played on snow, it’s a lot easier to play on grass.”
Skiing and ice skating are other popular sporting pastime for Ivan, friends and family.
“These winter sports help my football by developing character, stamina and patience; things that come in handy during a match. Skiing works out a specific group of muscles that you use in football too.”
Ivan holds a cherished dream – that he will make a successful career in the game one day. His Monchegorsk team finished third in the “football on snow” discipline at the Festival of the North - an annual sports event featuring a variety of winter sports that takes place in the towns of the Murmansk region.
Sunny climes would definitely attract Ivan, whatever the distance. “I would love to go to Spain, because they have better weather and better pitches.
This determined young football devotee with stars in his eyes has an instinctive feel for the values conveyed by UEFA’s #EqualGame campaign – in particular, the belief that football should be available to everyone, everywhere.
“Without football, life wouldn’t be as vibrant,” he emphasises. “It wouldn’t be as colourful.”
“Football belongs to everybody who wants to play the game. If you have the desire to play the game, then you can play wherever you like.”