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Is it responsible to play football at temperatures of below minus 15°C? FIFPro asked itself this question after Russian clubs recently had to play in European competitions during the ice-cold winter.


During the previous round of the Champions League and Europa League Zenit Sint Petersburg, CSKA, Spartak and Rubin Kazan all played their home matches in the freezing cold. The Rubin Kazan players had even left their own city to travel 700 kilometres and play their match against FC Twente in the Europa League in the warmer Moscow. Even so it was also very cold in Moscow, where Rubin played at 3 o'clock in the afternoon in front of only 500 spectators.


The UEFA regulations state that at temperatures of -15 and below teams can decide to cancel the match. It didn't come to this. The official UEFA thermometer stuck at -14.9 degrees during the Rubin Kazan-FC Twente match. This was incidentally in contrast to other thermometers that indicated temperatures of well below -15 degrees... (see picture below)


Was it a responsible decision to play in such cold weather? Vladimir Leonchenko, a member of FIFPro’s Technical Committee, executive director of the Russian players union and ex-player of among others Spartak and Torpedo Moscow, can speak from his own experience and he discussed the situation with various involved parties.


Leonchenko: ‘Even in Russia football matches at temperatures below -10 are relatively rare. There has never been a match cancelled due to the cold in recent years. There are also no provisions for this in the regulations. The decision is taken shortly before kick-off by the referee. The most important criterion is the condition of the pitch.’


Leonchenko asked for the opinion of among others Savely Myshalov, the club doctor of Locomotive FC who spent three decades working with the national teams of the USSR and Russia.


Myshalov: ‘The most important thing is to keep your feet warm. At Locomotive for example, this is achieved through the use of specially heated insoles. Players even use them when the temperature is zero degrees. Another important piece of advice: don’t use synthetic materials! Underpants, shorts, t-shirts: everything must be made from natural fabrics, preferably from wool, but at the very least from cotton. The same applies to gloves and hats. Apart from that, cheeks and nose need to be smeared with cream in order to prevent frostbite. And finally, during the breaks players need hot, sweet tea. However, it is unlikely that they will want other beverages in these conditions.’



Leonchenko also spoke to Igor Yegorov, the referee who in March 2008 refereed the cup match between Tom Tomsk and Dynamo at a temperature of -21.


Igor Yegorov: ‘In Russia the final word rests with the match referee, who assesses the degree of risk for the players’ health, bearing in mind the weather conditions and state of the pitch. During the first half, which started at a temperature of -16, the field was fine and quite soft. Towards the end of the match it was hard, but this did not hinder the game. Most players came out without any under padding. We, the referees, also did not wear any warm tracksuits, in order to show everybody that we were also working comfortably. I felt a little cold, but it did not hinder me from making decisions or prevent me from carrying on with the game.' 


'I was impressed by the number of supporters who came to watch the game, 12,500. We could and had to play for them. It turned out to be an interesting game. The situation was first discussed during the pre-match conference in the morning before the game. Then once again, two hours before the match. The condition of the pitch was examined together with the way the ball rolled. The most important thing is that the pitch must not be dangerous. The first commandment for a referee is to ensure the well being of the players.’


Alexander Tochilin was the captain of Dynamo at that time. He described a more negative picture than Leonchenko: ‘We did not think about the quality of the game, the main thing was the result. The pitch became a problem because the frost was stronger than the under soil heating! You also ask yourself: why do we need to play this match, since the fans’ enjoyment is also limited.’


The reactions received by Vladimir Leonchenko correspond with his own experiences. ‘Of course early February is not a good month to play football in large parts of Russia. It would be better if you could avoid it or move to a part of Russia with a better climate, however the risks for the players are not significant’, Leonchenko concludes.