No referee, no rules, no quarter given. This is the korobka, the home of real Russian football — and birthplace of a whole street subculture. Welcome to a world of tough tackles, silky skills and big dreams
“We are here at a remarkable match. All the biggest stars of world football are gathered on this stage.” So begins a video in which famous Russian football commentator Georgy Cherdantsev describes the action in a kid’s game going on in the courtyard beneath his balcony. If you want to see the real spirit of Russian football — the rough-and-ready game played in courtyard cages known as korobkas — often all you have to do is look out the window. Down there in the korobka, there will be a match going on featuring players wearing the colours of Spartak Moscow, Barcelona or Brazil. As major tournaments keep showing, Russian professional football is still a long way from the top level. But, in the winner-stays-on world of the korobka — full of grit and grace, full of street smarts and subculture styling — you’re only ever one step away from international greatness.
It was in the autumn of 1998 that I first discovered this whole other Moscow. The newspaper Sport-Express was holding a street football tournament, one so chaotically organised that our team, from south-east Moscow, had to trek round the city, playing our games in overlooked yards from the grim suburbs of Chertanovo to the old squares of Novoslobodskaya.
But in every location our destination was the korobka. I remember us piling out of trams and trolleybuses in unfamiliar parts of town and ending up in barren courtyards. People treated us with suspicion, but as soon as we found the korobka and jumped into it through the top — using the actual door was a sign of weakness — they relaxed: we had come to play football.
Our opponents were nothing like us, boys from a Moscow middle school. One time we played against kids from a school for the Georgian diaspora, whose behaviour would have taught Luis Suarez a thing or two. Another team had sponsored kits, boots and even shin pads — an unbelievable luxury for Moscow in the wake of the 1998 financial crash. One of the other squads didn’t come from a school, but took its players from the street itself: its huge striker was at least 25 (in an under-18 tournament) and the youngest had to stay in goal — the others just couldn’t be bothered. But one thing united all these teams: we all had our own korobka.
The reasons behind the rise of the cult of street football in Moscow are fairly prosaic: it has always been hard to find a place to play real football in this city. The parks and squares are full of trees and they don’t cut the grass; you can’t play on the paths for fear of angry pram-pushing mums. The full-sized goals in the local stadium seemed vast, and no one was keen on chasing the ball around an enormous pitch. But in the korobka, installed in courtyards way back in the hope of getting kids to play hockey, you can play football all year round, especially because they rarely bother to ice them over in the winter.
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The korobka is always in the middle of the yard. In residential areas where a lot of people lived, many different teams would make it their home pitch, and take it in turns to use it. Once inside the korobka no one ever wants to leave, so the rules are usually “winner stays on” — the best teams can occupy the pitch for entire evenings until it gets too dark to play.
When I was playing football on the street I soon understood why, in Ancient Greece, ceasefires were called and wars were stopped during the Olympic Games. It is as if the walls of the korobka protected us from the outside world. Inside it doesn’t matter whether you were a local thug or a pampered rich kid with your own Barcelona shirt and a football that wouldn’t go flat after two hours. Inside the korobka everyone is the same — everyone has an equal role in the game, and the differences that people notice in the real world became insignificant.
I taught myself not to trust Soviet newspapers, but I have no doubt about the figures I found in the Pionerskaya Pravda archives from 1965. There they say that a youth football tournament called The Leather Ball involved three million children from all over the country. And these kids were proper street footballers: children who played football at special sporting schools weren’t allowed to take part. It isn’t surprising that the numbers were so high: no one was forced to play street football, it was simply pure, undiluted pleasure.
The story goes that The Leather Ball tournament was dreamed up by legendary goalkeeper Lev Yashin — the embodiment of all that was good in Soviet football. At the very least he was the one who presented the medals to the cup’s first winners, a team from Minsk called Volna (“wave”). Yashin himself had begun as a street footballer: returning to Moscow after the war, he started to play with friends at the end of his shifts at a factory (he only became a professional after completing his military service). Yashin was a shining example that boyhood dreams can come true: the scrapper from the streets can be selected for the World XI at Wembley.
Of course The Leather Ball had a pragmatic goal: it was here that scouts from sporting academies could have a look at the children that professional coaches had not yet found. In 1982 the 12-year-old Sergei Kiryakov was named the tournament’s best player: he soon joined the academy at Spartak Orlov, was playing for Dynamo Moscow four years later and for the national team within five. “It was The Leather Ball that put me on the road to real football,” he recalls. “Professional sport has been my life since the age of 13 — before that it was street football.”
"I believe that street football is the key to success. This is where you acquire all the most important skills — fast passing, ball control, great vision. That's my kind of game." Kirill Laptev on his journey from the korobka to the big leagues
Just as inspirational is the story of legendary Spartak playmaker Fyodor Cherenkov. He was brought to a football academy by the manager of a local team who had only ever seen him play in a korobka. It was there that Cherenkov acquired his knack for quick thinking: his mother, Alexandra Cherenkova later reminisced about the rough and tumble of the korobka: “One boy tried to get at Fyodor whatever way he could. But my son moved so nimbly that the other boy kept running headfirst into the boards.”
The sides of the korobka, designed with games of hockey in mind, are symbolic as well as practical. They keep the ball in the game, stopping it from bouncing out in front of cars (in street football kicking the ball out of the yard is normally punished with a penalty). But they were also a dividing line between football and the real world. Everyone wanted to come inside, even those who didn’t play. And when they were inside, no-one wanted to come out.
I remember the moment when korobka-style football in Moscow turned into a subculture. In the mid-Nineties Russian television began to show matches from Europe’s best leagues – England, Spain and Italy. The Champions League, especially games featuring Spartak Moscow, was also shown regularly.
Watching the world’s best players, lads from Moscow’s housing blocks began searching their local markets for fake shirts — Liverpool, Real Madrid, Juventus — to play in. The blue and black Inter Milan shirt with Ronaldo on the back became as trendy as the Nirvana T-shirt with the picture of Kurt Cobain. But the biggest hits were shirts of the foreign clubs that Russian players had moved to: those familiar long surnames written in strange foreign letters — Kanchelskis, Shalimov, Beschastnykh, Mostovoi — they allowed us to believe that our games of football on the street were the same as those that we saw on TV.
More than this, it let us believe that one day, perhaps, the skills we honed in the korobka could be used on the manicured fields of the Bernabeu or Camp Nou. Ten years ago, Alan Dzagoev was playing in The Leather Ball competition; last year the CSKA striker shared a pitch with Ronaldo in the Champions League. There’s more football than ever before in Moscow — on the TV, in the street. It’s easier than ever to watch the big game, then slip on your replica shirt, head to the korobka and imagine you’re Cristiano Ronaldo. And what’s more, maybe, just maybe, you’ll get to face him someday. The path from a courtyard in Moscow to the international stage — the path once trod by Yashin, Cherenkov and Dzagoev — is shorter than ever before.