MOSCOW -- Have you heard the one about the teenage goalkeeper, who was named man of the match after a game in which he saved a penalty, but also conceded double figures in goals? It is a remarkable tale that played out on Friday when PFC Sochi hosted FC Rostov in the Russian Premier League.
Ahead of the league's resumption this week after a three-month hiatus, there were questions. The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over in Russia, which has the highest number of confirmed cases in Europe at more than 550,000. Many feared the decision could have repercussions, with particular concern over allowing a limited number of fans back into stadiums, but few thought there would be such an effect from the first day.
Six players at Rostov, a club that debuted in the Champions League group stage three seasons ago and went into the game sitting fourth this season, tested positive for coronavirus two days before the visit to Sochi. According to protocol, the whole first-team squad and staff had to be put into a two-week quarantine, with all of 42 obeying and self-isolating.
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Amid such a tight end to the season, the Russian Premier League suggested the game could be played on 19 July -- the day reserved for the Russian Cup semifinals -- but neither the league itself, nor the Russian Football Union, had the final say. Instead, with both sides having to agree a postponement, Sochi had the final say. And they said, "play."
Sochi were formed just two years ago, having merged with Dinamo St.Petersburg. They are often considered an artificial project made to become a farm club to FC Zenit -- nine of the Russian champions' players have moved to Sochi since last summer -- and to fill the beautiful Fischt stadium, left unused after the 2014 Olympic Games in Russia's famous southern resort.
It took the "Leopards" just a year to win promotion to the Premier League after starting out in the second tier, but they were bottom by the start of March and remain in trouble as the campaign approaches its final quarter. While the club's management never really talked of any ambitions or goals, relegation obviously was not in their plans.
Rostov president Artashes Arutyunyants claimed that losing so many players constituted a "force majeure" situation and fans around the country started a petition asking for leniency, solidarity and respect toward a team from a neighbouring region, but Sochi remained adamant about playing.
Ironically, the only match that has been postponed this season in the Russian top flight was between Sochi and Orenburg in November, due to an outbreak of acute tonsillitis among Sochi players and staff. On that occasion their opponents, who also happened to be relegation-threatened, agreed to reschedule.
In Rostov's case, they decided to somehow fulfill the fixture as, according to regulations, forfeiting two matches would lead to the team's expulsion from the Premier League.
"I don't know what we are going to do but we already know which team will get the fair play prize at the end of the season," head coach Valery Karpin said with a touch of sarcasm.
And so, just hours before kickoff, a Rostov youth team comprised mainly of boys born in 2003 and largely unknown to fans and media alike and having not trained for more than three months, were at the airport,. With no plans for Russia's age-group leagues to resume, they were effectively called back from vacation
Rostov's team of teenagers took the field at the Fischt stadium and, to the sincere joy of football fans in every part of the country outside of Sochi, opened the scoring after just 52 seconds through Roman Romanov. But what could have been the script for a future Hollywood movie failed to materialise.
Instead, Sochi fielded their strongest team, showed no mercy and won 10-1. Former Russia international striker Aleksandr Kokorin, released from jail last September after assaulting and racially abusing a Russian government official in October 2018, netted a hat trick.
Amazingly, the man of the match award went to Rostov goalkeeper Denis Popov who, aside from conceding 10 times, managed to set a Premier League record by making 15 saves, including a penalty from Anton Zabolotny.
"I was doing my best, working hard and God rewarded me for that," the 17-year-old said after the game, awkwardly trying to hide a smile.
The result will be a major bonus to Lokomotiv Moscow, Krasnodar and CSKA Moscow, Rostov's rivals in the table for Champions League qualification, while Sochi put some much-needed space between themselves and the relegation zone and enjoyed a healthy boost to their goal difference.
"Well, we completed our task, won the game and got the desired three points," Sochi's general director Dmitry Rubashko told ESPN. "Emotions? No real emotions, we realise that we played the youth but they fought hard. Who knows, maybe some of those boys will never play in the Premier League again, and now they got their chance.
"Why did we not agree to postpone the match? I want you to understand that all of these force majeure situations were discussed between the clubs before the resumption of the league. And it was agreed that in the event of coronavirus cases in any team, those with negative tests would have to play. Rostov sent their players into a two-week quarantine, which means they won't be ready for the next games either. So would that be fair if we postponed our match but their next opponents played the youth?"
Sochi got the points, while Rostov's players had an unforgettable experience, for better or worse. They also drew praise from their opponents, with two-goal Zabolotny posting on Instagram "to thank the young guys from Rostov for their commitment, dedication and debut in the RPL, good luck in your future career."
That future career might mean more Premier League action. Rostov are schedule to host Arsenal Tula on June 27; with the senior players still quarantined, the kids could again be called upon.