It is the semi-final of an amateur indoor soccer tournament in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek. A team representing the Russian Embassy are playing a team representing a local mobile phone operator, and a diminutive pensioner with a white puff of hair is controlling the game effortlessly.
The embassy team is winning the match 2-0. The white puff of hair strolls around the pitch, five feet four inches tall and 63 years old, directing a troupe of enthusiastic lumberers roughly half his age with barked commands and crisp, unfailing passes. Younger fans in the 100-strong crowd, saturated by televized and online coverage of the English, Russian and Spanish leagues, have no idea who the old man is. They can only murmur in collective deference as he receives an awkward ball at waist height, swivels expertly and traps it dead beneath his foot before spraying it onward with enviable ease.
A thick-set middle-aged fan sitting behind the kids has seen it all before.
“Vladimir Oreshin,” he whispers reverently. “He is better than Pirlo, isn’t he?”
Although that comparison might be a stretch, Vladimir Maximovich Oreshin shook the world in his prime. Or at least, he shook a little-known corner of it.
A nostalgia club in a country soaked in nostalgia
Bishkek’s oldest soccer club, FC Alga, is a nostalgia club in a country soaked in nostalgia. A 2013 Gallup poll of former Soviet countries showed only rueful Armenia regretted the collapse of the Union more than Kyrgyzstan, a small, indebted, landlocked republic unfurled awkwardly across some of Central Asia’s most magnificent mountain ranges.
That sense of loss is understandable. The Kyrgyz SSR was perhaps the republic least prepared for the kind of independence dumped on it back in December 1991. Heavily subsidized by Moscow, the Union’s disintegration was nothing to be celebrated. Pensions and incomes got halved, quartered and quartered again in the space of months as hyperinflation ran wild. Heart attacks hit neighborhoods in waves, as healthy people caved under the sheer shock brought on by an epic collapse.