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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Have a Ball: Join the Game

Flakes of green Astroturf flutter to the ground as Niels Jensen dribbles the football down the field, glancing up briefly to see where he should send the ball.

Suggestions come pouring out of his teammates in a torrent of Russian and English -- mostly English. He passes the ball off to a teammate and looks for his next move.

It's a Saturday evening and the Denmark native is part of the growing population of expatriates turning to organized sports to stay fit.

"The first question I ask anyone new to town is 'Do you speak English?' And then I ask 'Do you play football?'" Raul Martinez, Jensen's teammate, said while getting ready for a recent game of the Over 30s Expat League.

Over the years, many expats have attempted to form a variety of sports teams in town. Only a few have survived the high costs that are often associated with maintaining such leagues.

When the Over 30s Expat League started up a little more than three years ago, it consisted of just two teams, aimed primarily, as the name suggests, at people over the age of 30. Finding enough players for a full field game was a challenge. Interest has since soared, however, and there are now eight teams.

While there is no single explanation for the surge, a flurry of promotion via the Internet has helped to send numbers climbing, reflecting a multistage recruitment process that now wends its way through offices across the city and into the blogosphere.

The proliferation is hardly contained to football. The Moscow Dragons' feats on the rugby scene and increasing interest in broomball have helped to raise their profile, triggering their growth as well. The Dragons, started up in 1997, boast on their web site that they now have more than 230 members. The Moscow Broomball League now lists 20 teams on its web site.

For those who have just arrived in the city, the teams give them an instant group of friends, a network of support that helps them adjust to their new life. Those who participate say the sport itself is only part of what draws them to the field or court. It's the camaraderie, the bonding over shashlik and beer after the game that's just as important.

"For some people who played football back home, it's important to join a football team here," Roelof Stellingwerff, of the Netherlands, said after a recent game. "The whole week is about looking forward to the game and what follows."

And as can be imagined, the numbers ebb and flow in a pattern that is in synch with the expat population.

Flag football seems to draw more American expat athletes. The Moscow Flag Football League, which plays in the park behind the U.S. Embassy and at a Moscow State University field, just wrapped up its fourth season.

For MT
Broomball has been sweeping a growing number of Moscow expats off their feet.
What started initially as a pickup game among a small group of Americans has developed into a full-fledged league. There are no fixed teams or official scoring, but the mailing list now includes over 50 names, organizers said.

The group hopes to play teams from other cities, or perhaps in a tournament that includes St. Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod, among others, but finding teams in those areas has proved challenging, said Dan Gotham, a league organizer. The idea of an inter-American football-rugby tournament against the Moscow Dragons has also been bandied about as a possible upcoming event.

As soon as the Moscow River thaws, another group is working to organize expat races using a fleet of 12 small dinghies starting in April. Each boat will pay 800 rubles for five hours -- the same price each of the Over 30 football players pays per game. Organizers expect that this year's races will be more informal, but that if they turn into a success, the coming years could see them become more formalized and competitive.

David Nitzsche-Bell, of Maryland, said he worked hard to form a volleyball league, but once he realized how costly it would be to rent space, he turned to an already-formed Russian league that plays on Sunday afternoons. The main sticking point: "It's hard to find a gym that you can get for a reasonable rate that's decent," he said.

The football league pays 20,000 rubles to play for 90 minutes, along with fees for referees. Even with the steep cost of playing, "if every expat knew about the opportunity, we would have 20 teams, and there are more expats coming into Moscow at the moment," said Nick Rees, who co-founded the league with fellow expat Darren Keane.

"It's escapism," Keane said. And in the summer, when it's real grass that flutters behind the players, "it's like being anywhere in Europe. You don't feel like you're in Moscow anymore."

Where to Play

Over 30s Expat League. Contact: Nick Rees,

Moscow Dragons. Contact:

Moscow Flag Football League.
Contact: Daniel Gotham,

Moscow Broomball League. Contact: Andrew Mullen,

Boat races.
Contact: Martin Folwell,