Football is nothing without the enthusiasm of its fans. And there are none more important than the young boys and girls who represent the future of the world’s game. There are thousands of initiatives across the globe dedicated to involving young people in football as players — and one of the most iconic, the Leather Ball tournament, has a special place in Russian sporting history.
Lev Yashin, Dinamo Moscow and Soviet Union national goalkeeper for 20 years, is one of the most celebrated players in the history of the sport, widely recognised as the greatest Russian footballer of all time. Yet alongside his many winners medals for club and country, Yashin has another legacy which is less well known. In the early 60s, he used his celebrity to push for the creation of a national mass participatory competition for children, and in 1964, with Party backing, Leather Ball was born. It has run every year since.
The tournament features three age groups, with children from 11-15 years of age, and now includes girls’ as well as boys’ teams. In the very first iteration, 170,000 teams, representing 3 million young players from across the USSR took part. The first champions came from the Belarusian capital Minsk, and subsequent victors came from all over the Soviet Republics — Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and more. Since 1993 the tournament has been based in Russia.
Leather Ball helped launch the careers of some of the Soviet Union’s and Russia’s greatest footballers, including the likes of Oleg Blokhin, Albert Sarkisyan, Olg Romantsev and Andrey Shevchenko. Only time will tell which of today's young competitors will go on to greatness.
On a bright spring day in April outside Volgograd, young boys gather to take part in a Leather Ball training session. Seven teams took part, with Volgar emerging eventual winners with a 7-0 victory over MOKU SSh no. 1 in the day’s final game.
The initiative gives boys from ages 11 to 15 the chance to train and play as a team, something which would otherwise elude football fans in the provinces.
The formation of teams also gives youngsters a sense of local pride which — if they progress through the tournament — can ultimately find itself on a national stage.
In the Soviet period, sport was recognised as a fundamental aspect of social life, and facilities were constructed even in the most remote areas.
Today the infrastructure remains, but a new generation of athletes is needed to put it to good use and prevent it falling into disrepair.
Of course, the tournament is about competition. But it also allows young players to learn the value of mutual respect on and off the field.
While most of those who take part in Leather Ball will not progress beyond their local qualifying rounds, the experience is still avaluable one.
At the end of the day, the most important action is still, as ever, on the pitch.