It is normally the case, at least for me, to be stumbling upon great finds almost entirely by chance, and today was exactly one such case. We were sitting on a topchan at the hotel, yet again cheered by endless supplies of tea and sweets, whilst I used Google maps to supplement my hand-drawn map’s deficiencies.
Zooming back to include most of Bukhara in the picture, I noticed a new development, evidently included by some Mountain View coder exactly for eventualities such as these: a notification of specific events happening where I was looking. That day, a polite notice in red, hovering above the city’s stadium, said “Buxoro PFC – Pakhtakor 18.00”. We discussed it for a whole minute and then it was settled: we were going to sample Uzbekistan’s top football division.
The hubbub of excitement outside Bukhara’s football stadium, home of the city’s darlings, the Buxoro Professional Football Club, was palpable. The city’s finest were out in force, both the rather plump and jovial boys in green uniform and the lean, muscular and rather more serious members of the Milliy Gvardiya, the black-clad military cops. We were quickly discovering that stadiums in Uzbekistan are much more civilised than they are over in Italy.
Having gotten our two tickets, for a grand total of £1.20, we then approached the turnstiles. Clutching our stubs, we gingerly approached the phalanx of officers standing under menacing notices prohibiting access to people carrying bags, cameras, sticks, bottles and other indecipherable objects. We had one backpack, two cameras, one of which big enough to be used as a small telescope and inconspicuous like a member of the Harlem Globetrotters posing in a photo with a group of chin-strap penguins. Still, we need not have worried, because as soon as the notion of us being tourists spread amongst the guardians of the order, we were waved through amongst excited cheers of “Italia! Toto Cotugno!”. With the least thorough check seen in any major stadium in the world, we were in.
The ring of space between the outer fence and the concrete buttresses of the stadium reminded me of my hometown’s arena where I practiced track & field. Well-kept flowerbeds ran for the entire length of the stadium, completed with small cypresses and other trees. It was a rather gentle surrounding and a far cry from the holding pens and barbed-wire walkways I was more accustomed to see in the medieval fortresses that passed for football arenas over in the Bel Paese.
A photographer in hi-vis was snapping pictures of four lads in blue tracksuits, photo badges hanging from their necks, holding Buxoro scarves between their stretched hands. They must have been the local ultras. We watched them, and they watched us; but, unlike in Italy, where we would most probably be advised to sod off, or be rewarded for our impudence with a Glaswegian kiss, we found ourselves invited to join them in the part of the stands that had been claimed as their own domain. Again, unlike Italy, it was not one of the popular terraces furthest away from the pitch, but it was almost smack-bang on the centreline. These guys had it good.
To say that the arrival of two Italian visitors did not generate a bit of a stir would be a lie. In fact, the magnitude of the surprise we caused could be described by imagining that the Pope and Paul Weller appeared, alone and unannounced, to the North Stand at Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea play on a rainy Wednesday evening. Never before I had been asked to pose for so many selfies, shake so many hands or to explain why Torino FC is better than Juventus (it really is, believe me).
Whilst we went through the usual pleasantries that precede the beginning of a match – the ultras re-arranging their wares, players and referees pottering about on the pitch, pretty much everyone smoking like chimneys – I could not help but feel a bit nervous about the game. Allow me to explain.
You see, Buxoro PFC is what Italian commentators of the beautiful game liked to define a workmen’s team, a blue-collar group with big hearts and little fear, but also very shortly in supply of good feet. Its natural position, the food chain of the Uzbekistan Super League, was roughly halfway up the table, with far more frequent slips in the bottom than forays in the top half. Pakhtakor, on the other hand, might have meant cotton pickers, but it was clear that a lot of Amu Darya water had flown under the bridges since it was nothing more than an after-work distraction for kolkhoz labourers.
Pakhtakor had a shiny new Adidas kit, had won the national title nine times since 2001, played home games in a stadium within spitting distance from the nation’s Senate and could boast, within the first squad, one Portuguese, one Brazilian, one Serbian and an Australian. By the looks of it, the most international experience that Buxoro had to offer was a previous career in purse-snatching across Europe’s train stations for the guy with jersey no. 8, but I could not be sure of that.
Predictably, as the game commenced, it was a tale of two teams: one sandwiched into its own half, and the other descending along the flanks like marauding Huns, throwing balls into the opponent’s penalty box as if they were raining. Only the sacrifice of Buxoro defenders, who used every bodily part allowed by the rules to stop the shots, and Tashkent’s utter incompetence were to thank for the result remaining on a goalless draw.
Buxoro’s responses were valiant, but their modus operandi – which the same Italian commentators quoted earlier would have defined Viva il Parroco or “long live the reverend” for its slapdashness – was utterly hopeless. As the minutes rolled by, it dawned on me that both team were made of players with clothes irons in lieu of feet. Still, to the valiant supporters of Buxoro it did not seem to matter much: the sun set, some floodlights were turned on and the cheering remained as frenzied as it was at the beginning.
Drums kept on pounding a syncopated rhythm we could dance to, choirs we could only begin to understand ran from side to side and our flags fluttered in the evening breeze. The claque was led by a valorous band of brothers, amongst whom “Apocalypto”, thus nicknamed for his rather Mesoamerican features, stood head and shoulders above everyone else. We clapped, danced and had an almighty jolly good time, all whilst the ball bounced from head to head, and ankles were tackled with the same gay abandon as the leather sphere.
In the meantime, I had started to get acquainted with my seatmate, a bear of a man who I took to call Muscles. Muscles chewed shovelfuls of snuff tobacco, pirouetted a large drum stick as if it was his own prehistoric club, smelt just ripe and swore so much that the other ultras had to repetitiously ask him to moderate his tone. He was a great company and we were having the best time. But that was when disaster struck.
Corner from the left for Pakhtakor. As the ball arched in toward the box our goalie, Amanov, abandoned his position to pick up some invisible daisies, or to do something which, from our point of view, was pretty unclear. Whatever the intentions, he succeeded in being beaten by Griffiths, the Aussie, whose wide forehead pistoned the ball towards the unguarded net. The goal had all but been assigned, were it not for the providential intervention of a Buxoro defender’s face, against which the ball slammed, undoubtedly causing life-changing injuries but saving the goal, which – at the end of the day – was all that mattered. The ball bounced back into the penalty box; Amanov tried to recover some dignity by slapping it away, failed, gave up and returned back; in the meantime,
Goncalves, Tashkent’s Portuguese attacker, tossed the ball towards a squad mate. One of the Buxoro guys saw the ball cruising towards him; he remembered Ronaldinho’s Crazy Scorpion kick from FIFA Street Football and decided to give it a go. Needless to say, it ended in disaster: the ball bounced a few feet away from Goncalves, who threw himself in pursuit; Buxoro’s number 10, Salomov, threw a kick like a horse, aiming to launch the sphere into near-orbit. He obviously missed, delivering a kung-fu kick to Goncalves, who rightly fell to the ground in a series of spasms that were almost believable. Penalty.
So far, the supporters had been well behaved, undoubtedly because of the very large – and not at all friendly – police presence. Now, however, not even the threat of a stadium ban inflicted by the local branch of the KGB could held the Buxoro boys back. The whole stadium booed the decision and suggested, we were to learn, that the referee indulged in practices forbidden by most of the world’s religions and a good number of national law codes.
Still, it was all for nothing. Goncalves arrived in position, whilst Amanov tried to distract him by flapping his arms as if he was a seagull. The referee whistled. Goncalves ran in for the kill and then hammered in a kick that would have stunned a mule. Amanov threw himself on the wrong side of the goal. The ball zoomed, rocketed towards the goal and… missed. Goncalves’ kick overshot the woodwork by a good meter, describing a perfect ballistic arc before landing on the athletics track. Buxoro was still in the game and, on the stands, we celebrated as if we had just scored.
At that point, the tide began turning. The failed penalty had blown the wind out of Pakhtakor’s sails, whilst it roared into Buxoro’s. The boys in green began crossing into the other half, making more and more attempts to score; were it not for their apparent incapacity to run with a ball, it is safe to say that at least one would have engaged Tashkent’s goalie. Then, around the 43rd minute, Omonov, a feline-looking midfielder, darted towards the endline as if possessed by a demon.
Throwing caution – and schemes, if ever they had them – to the wind, three Tashkent defenders lunged head over feet in hot pursuit, leaving wide tracts of their penalty box unguarded. A lupine Quittboev edged closer to the goal, all alone.
Omanov sprinted, sprinted and then sprinted some more. When it seemed boxed in and incapable of going one step further – the endline before him, three defenders all around his back – he pirouetted and, in the only display of finesse I was to witness in the whole game, dished out a low pass back to Quttiboev who, admirably, calculated the rebound, aimed and let go a veritable cruise missile, just a palm from the grass, straight into the net. Goal.
I had seen Italy beat France in the mayhem of my hometown’s main square, where a good thousand people were boxed in. Yet the scenes of that night in July 2006 paled in comparison with what happened on the stands after Quttiboev had bagged it. Muscles bear-hugged me with such strength that I would have sworn that he was trying to collapse at least one of my lungs. From above it rained people. Apocalypto saw it all and leaped up to strangle us in an embrace, despite being three rows down and holding a drum. Everyone screamed and shouted things we could not understand, but we nonetheless piled in and yelled at the top of our lungs.
Halftime came soon after and, interval over, it was clear that one of the two teams had remained with their minds in the dressing room, if not straight into the bus and over to the hotel. That team was Pakhtakor Tashkent. Buxoro, instead, ran as if they had a new lease of life in their muscles. They failed time and again to score again, but it did not seem to be mattering too much for the boys on the stands, where the atmosphere was joyous.
More and more supporters were having half of their faces painted blue à la William Wallace with felt tip pens; when the drums reached a feverish rhythm worthy of Heart of Darkness, which was pretty often, more and more launched into dervish dances. Some might say that I joined in on the fun, but in the absence of conclusive video proof we shall never know. We even got a couple of Mexican waves to do a round of the whole stadium.
Time passed quickly, punctuated by cramps and yellow cards issued like confetti by the referee. Yet there still was time for one last hurrah. Tashkent was on the offensive, trying to find a way to equalise; Buxoro, though, had all but parked the bus in front of the goal and offered no clear avenues. Round and round did the ball go, shuffled between players in a tiki-taka that had neither the skill nor the inspiration of Barcelona’s. Lobanov, Tashkent’s goalie, had advanced to support the operations, loitering around the ¾ line. He received a rather half-baked back pass, which he had to stop. As he looked up to see who should he lob the hot potato to, he received the rather unwelcome news that one Buxoro attacker had appeared out of nowhere and was heading, in a whirlwind of arms and legs, towards him.
What followed reminded me of Del Piero’s second goal against Germany in the 2006 semis. Lobanov tries desperately to rid himself of the ball in a move awkward even by David Seaman standards; the ball obviously gets intercepted. The Buxoro forward dribbles the hapless Lobanov, then opens to a colleague who, at the head of a small army of pursuing Tashkent players, is running for dear life towards the goal.
The man – in the confusion I could not read his number – then discharged a Hellfire missile which, with surgical precision, slammed precisely into the plums of the only Pakhtakor defender who had managed to return in time to protect the net. As the hero wriggled on the pitch in the grip of an indescribable pain, we discussed what tools were going to be employed to beat Lobanov once back in the hotel: wet towels or the rather harsher soap bars plonked into socks?
The end came soon thereafter. We indulged in some well-deserved celebrations, with an Uzbek rendition of the Viking Thunder Clap of Icelandic fame, and then it was time to go. We hugged, shook hands and smiled with our new friends, whom we never would have met had it not been for football. I waved one last time at Muscles, who replied by brandishing his club high above his head, and then it was really time to defile out, walking north into the night, towards the hotel. Tomorrow night we would leave Bukhara, this city of great history and proud heritage, but first and foremost of great, great people.
As we left the arena we could still hear one choir rising from the parking lot, where a fleet of minibuses and marshrutkas waited to bring the fans home. Bo-kha-ra. Bo-kha-ra. Bo-kha-ra. It felt, and I sure as hell wanted it, as if it was never going to end.
This post was first published on Are we there yet? We read a lot of travel blogs, and few are worth reading. Fabrizio’s blog, however, is a cut above the rest. Recommended.