STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, at the World Cup in Russia, one group of fans is watching with special interest - Russians who play soccer as well as watch it. NPR's Alina Selyukh grew up in Russia and is covering the World Cup. She spoke with three generations of Russian soccer players, starting with her own family.
ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: My father parks the car in front of a five-story apartment building - red brick, balconies jutting out.
ALEKSANDR SELYUKH: (Speaking Russian).
ALINA SELYUKH: He says, that window on the first floor, that was his room as a kid. I immediately see the stadium. It's directly across the street.
ALEKSANDR SELYUKH: (Through interpreter) Mom would send me off to do homework, but I'd go quietly to the window - hop - and off to the stadium.
ALINA SELYUKH: It was hockey in the winter, soccer in the summer. Though, of course, my father would call it football. This was the '60s in the Soviet Union. And today, my dad - his name is Aleksandr, by the way - he brought me back to his hometown of Otradny - population 50,000 - to meet one of his best friends from childhood. His name is also Aleksandr - Purgayev. He grew up one door down. Together with my dad in the '70s, he joined the town's soccer team. And Purgayev, he's still on it. Well, he's the coach.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CHIRPING)
ALINA SELYUKH: His office has two birds in hanging cages and trophies and plaques propped up everywhere there's a flat surface. His team is one of the best in the region. His players occasionally go on to professional leagues. Here in Otradny, the players do get paid, but they're amateurs with other day jobs, except for Purgayev, for whom soccer is the day job.
ALEKSANDR PURGAYEV: (Through interpreter) Football is my life. It's everything. For a long time now, all my family has understood. My wife and kids, they know. They used to say, you and your football. But now, they say, Dad is at work.
ALINA SELYUKH: Purgayev says their town soccer games draw all kinds of people, up to a thousand in the stands. A lot of retired men, sure, but also girls and moms with children. Plus, soccer is also more accessible to play. It doesn't require expensive equipment, just some shoes and a patch of dirt. It's just something you do as a kid during recess in school, with friends in the yard, or in today's case, on a fancy soccer field.
Here in the stadium, on one side, there's a cluster of tiny children, maybe 5 or 6 years old, kicking the ball around. On another side, a tall man towers over a squad of teenagers. His name is Valeriy Kruntiayev. He plays on Purgayev's adult team and also trains this youth lineup, which is where he got his own start back in the day.
VALERIY KRUNTIAYEV: (Through interpreter) I remember when I was little. We had a shortage of players, and our coach went to different schools and talked to boys trying to convince them to come to practice. But now, we don't have such a problem. We might get 30, 40, even 50 people coming. Everyone wants to train.
ALINA SELYUKH: Kruntiayev had left Otradny to attend football academies and play semi-pro and pro for a while, got an education degree and came back to train the next generation of players.
ALINA SELYUKH: Amir Tabarov draws the short straw to have to talk to the reporter lady. He is 14, and so are most of his teammates, one of whom is actually a girl. I ask him to name his favorite players.
AMIR TABAROV: Ronaldhino.
ALINA SELYUKH: Brazil's Ronaldinho.
AMIR: Cristiano Ronaldo.
ALINA SELYUKH: Second place is Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo. And third place...
AMIR: (Speaking Russian).
ALINA SELYUKH: His brother, who plays on the town's adult men's team together with the youth coach, Kruntiayev. From where the teenagers are playing today, it's about 50 miles to the Samara Arena, one of the stadiums hosting this year's World Cup. The youth team was actually in the drawing to be ball boys for the tournament but didn't get in. Coach Kruntiayev is wearing a World Cup T-shirt. He says he's been using the matches as material for training and has even overheard the little preschoolers discussing the games.
KRUNTIAYEV: (Through interpreter) You watch TV and think it's like a parallel universe that you'll never see or know except on TV, but here you realize they're real. And here they are in Samara. You can go there and see.
ALINA SELYUKH: The boys on the youth team told me they're feeling motivated by the World Cup, wanting to be on the Russian team when the next one rolls around. Amir Tabarov points out they'll be 18 by then.
Alina Selyukh, NPR News, Samara, Russia.
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