Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

City Day Is a Ball For Mayor Luzhkov

MTMoscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov displaying his skills with a soccer ball during the game at Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday.
What do you do if you're mayor of Moscow and you fancy a game of soccer? Forget about a trip to the local park for a kick around, and instead head for the country's most impressive stadium.

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, whose famous rotund figure may seem to resemble more a soccer ball than a soccer player, pulled on his shorts as captain of a Moscow government team in a gala match Sunday at Luzhniki Stadium to celebrate City Day and the end of the Russian Federation Cup, a two-day soccer tournament for government bureaucrats from all over the country.

Twenty-two middle-aged men lined up at 9 a.m. in the giant 80,000-seat stadium, home to soccer side Torpedo Moscow and site of the 1980 Olympic Games, which Sunday was eerily empty of spectators and silent except for players' curses.

Having made sure that the weather was going to be good for the match -- and admittedly for City Day as well -- by having planes seed the clouds, the mayor made sure of an amateur game to remember.

Apart from having the country's top stadium at his disposal, the mayor got former top officials from the Russian Premier League to referee and television commentator Gennady Orlov, a former professional player, to provide live commentary.

The other team, billed as representing Russia, was headed by Federation Council member Gennady Burbulis and made up of a mixture of politicians and journalists.

Luzhkov's team had drafted in two former professional players, including Boris Ignatyev, the former trainer of the Russian national team, yet despite their help it was an even, competitive match that ended in a fair 2-2 draw. The mayor himself proved one of the dominating players if not always for his skill.

He played a part in both of his side's goals by providing the crucial passes for the goalscorer, but to the neutral observer, he seemed to be helped by the overcautious play of the opposing defense, who either parted like the Red Sea before Moses or looked as if they would rather run backward into the stands than tackle the top-heavy mayor.

"They treated him carefully," referee Garafi Zhafarov said tactfully after the match, "because they didn't want to injure him."

And although able to put his teammates through now and again with decent passes, the mayor's major fault was that he moved about as much as the traffic on Tverskaya Ulitsa during rush hour.

Meanwhile, his grunts of disapproval brought nervous looks from some of his teammates, who also bore the brunt of Luzhkov-biased commentary from Orlov of the likes of "Why didn't the player run into the space?" whenever a mayoral pass went astray.

The mayor also gave a quick mini class on the importance of ensuring that the captain of the team gets the ball.

"I came off because they stopped passing to me," he complained vigorously to teammates as he came off for a rest just before halftime, red faced and sweaty. He then repeated himself to the whole team at halftime and went on the record in front of a horde of TV cameras before the start of the second half.

During the second half, he received a lot more of the ball.

For whatever his failings on the field, the mayor did have one part of the professional footballer down pat. As he sat down on the substitutes' bench with his teammates, he leaned forward, placed one finger on one nostril and blew the other one straight onto the track. David Beckham, himself, couldn't have done it better.

The leaflet for the tournament has a picture of Luzhkov kicking a ball superimposed onto the Moscow River with the Kremlin in the background as if to show that not only can the mayor walk on water but play soccer on it as well.

Rules had been somewhat different in the tournament Friday and Saturday among 10 teams of government bureaucrats, including from Kirov and the Siberian city of Chita. At least eight players in the team had to be older than 50, and fielding a professional player was not allowed, as a different Moscow government team from the one Luzhkov played in found out when it was penalized with a 3-0 defeat after fielding an illegal player, a masseur from a professional team.

Tournament games were played on only half of the pitch at Luzhniki, rather than the full pitch of the gala match, and for only 25 minutes rather than the full 90 minutes played Sunday.

Attendances were similarly sparse though.

The tournament was won by a team representing President Vladimir Putin's administration, which beat the Kirov administration on penalties in the final Saturday.

Although the president's team didn't have any professional players, it did have Soviet soccer great Viktor Ponedelnik, who scored the winning goal for the Soviet Union in the final of the 1960 European Championship, as its trainer.

Ponedelnik said the tournament itself was a good idea as it helped to push the idea of sports with the men who make the decisions in the country. Many bureaucrats and politicians have followed Putin's lead in trying to raise the profile of sports and physical education.

"When bureaucrats play sports, it's a big agitation for sports. Much more than words," Ponedelnik said.

The only difficulty may be refereeing men who are used to being in charge.

"Important people are very difficult [to referee]," Zhafarov said. "Spartak and Dynamo are easier."