Sports in Arkansas and Podunk Russia: Real War, Fake War & the Real Money of Both

Arkansas is not so unlike Dagestan.

Both are southern, predominantly rural states/republics in much, much bigger nations – Arkansas in the United States, Dagestan in Russia.

Both have just under 3 million people, and about 90% of those people believe in monotheism – Christianity in Arkansas, Islam in Dagestan.

These places also tend to be stereotyped as backwater by the big-city fancy pants of their respective nations. But not when it comes to sports, where football rules in either area – a la American in Arkansas, soccer in Dagestan. Natives of both places, less wealthy and educated than most other areas in their nations, through this game can notch instant, vicarious respect in their nation’s cultural consciousness.

You’d better believe plenty Arkies inwardly nodded and smiled when an acclaimed columnist of the world’s largest sports outlet tabbed the Razorbacks as this season’s college football champions.

And I’m thinking more than just a few Dagestanis pressed the internal “like” button when they heard recent news that in Arkansas football terms would translate to something like this:  Heisman hopefuls Andrew Luck and Dont’a Hightower are transferring to the University of Arkansas, and the NCAA has granted immediate eligibility to play for the Hogs. That’s the kind of impact expected from landing possibly the best player in the sport, as Dagestan’s biggest soccer club did by signing soccer superstar Samuel Eto’o to one of the richest contracts in sports history. He gives the club a legitimate shot at upending the Russian League big boys from Moscow and St. Petersburg.

But here’s where all that similarity talk collapses.

Most Arkansans are poor in American terms, while most Dagestanis are poor in Russian terms. That’s a world of difference.

Look closer and you’ll find Dagestan more  resembles the guerilla war-torn Ozarks circa 1860s than anything like modern Arkansas.

With its mountainous terrain, the area is a hodgepodge of various ethnic groups and a breeding ground of myriad religious tensions often erupting into violence and terrorism. Most Arkansans, unlike Dagestanis, don’t belong to one tribe or another. They don’t have to worry about rampant governmental corruption, a flourishing black market and a clan-based economic system stunting their homeland’s development.

As football season churns up locally, I am reminded of the stark differences between these two areas of the world and how those differences are magnified by their most popular sports.

I recently wrote an article for Sync about the rivalry between Vilonia and Greenbrier, two communities orbiting Arkansas’ capital city. Last spring, a tornado ripped through Vilonia, killing four people and altering that town forever. I focused on the role Greenbrier played in its recovery. During the interviews, I was struck by how important the rivalry game has become, not only for rah-rah reasons, but financial ones:

“We’re liable to have twice the gate as normal,” says Ed Sellers, assistant superintendent of Vilonia Public Schools. In Vilonia’s stadium, that can mean a capacity crowd of 4,500 people at $5 a pop for adults, $4 for students. That’s a $10,000 uptick in gate revenue as well as extra concession and merchandise sales. This game greases the football engines of both schools.

You see this elsewhere, too, whether it’s Benton and Bryant high schools trying to muster a state-record 30,000 fans for their annual showdown, or the LSU-Arkansas game that’s almost sure to sell out every year. Indeed, most every major football program in the South has a rival, and fattens its athletic budget by playing it annually.

So far, so obvious, right?

So is the following ingredient which makes generating all this passion, all this money, all this history between these rival communities possible: civic peace.

Who has time to worry about simulated war when the real thing is raging next door?

Dagestan has way too much of the real thing, and that’s what makes the the story of Eto’o playing for its main soccer club, Anzhi Makhachkala, kind of heart-wrenching.

Suleiman Kerimov, a billionaire oil tycoon, owns the club. Kerimov and other such tycoons in the area didn’t build their petro-wealth in the most transparent of ways, according to a native of the part of Russia:

He stole his fortune from the common wealth created by  blood and sweat of our grandfathers and fathers generation … If he invested that money into the economy of the region (130 mil over 3 years including the transfer fee) creating jobs for young people it would probably take care of a major part of the terror problem. Would be a better long-term outcome for his team in terms of fan base and ticket sales…. I’m afraid it’s all about bragging rights and wanting to outdo his fellow oligarchs.

Eto’o and his multimillionaire teammates won’t even live in Dagestan. Instead, they’ll train 1,250 miles away, outside of Moscow, and travel 15 times a season to play in “home” games in Makhachkala. My guess is that the strength of the security details which will surround the players on the streets there could put a Mech Warrior to shame.

This degree kind of separation between a community’s team and its fans saddens me. Sure, I know this is elite professional sports we’re talking about here, not high school or college sports. These athletes can sometimes more resemble mercenaries than residents vesting anything of worth in the communities they’re playing in.

But even the Jay Cutlerest, the Randy Mossisest of American athletes at least spend their money in the restuarants, bars and stores of the cities they play in. If nothing else, their financial wealth adds to their communities’ wealth.

Not so with Eto’o and other transplants playing in Dagestan. Chances are they won’t have much do at all to do with the Makhachkala community, even if they wanted to.

Because, quite simply, it’s too dangerous to live among the people filling their home stadium. The people cheering loudest for you will hardly ever have a chance of seeing in you in their stores, schools, parks.

And so we have it, the next step in the high stakes world of elite European soccer:  pure sport, sheer money-making, no mixing with a team’s community and those troublesome fans.

It’s enough to make you shudder, go outside and raise a U.S. flag.

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