MOSCOW // A sort of field hockey on ice that is played mainly on the freezing steppes of Siberia, the game of bandy is pressing to win a broader fan base – and international recognition.
A distant second favourite to Russia’s dominant winter sport ice hockey, of which it is thought to be an early ancestor, the high-tempo game involves two teams of 11 players on ice skates using hockey sticks to try to hit a ball into goals on a frozen pitch the size of a football field.
The sport, which is believed to have its origins in the Middle Ages and gained brief popularity in England a century ago, is mainly played in Scandinavia and the Russian hinterland, where it is commonly known just as “Russian hockey”.
But at the annual Bandy World Cup held in February in provincial Russia teams from as far afield as the United States, China, Germany and even, surprisingly, war-torn Somalia took part.
The team from Somalia is made of up of refugees from the country living in Sweden and the tournament was eventually won by the hosts Russia.
Afterwards, Russian president Vladimir Putin, who often takes to the ice to play highly choreographed hockey games with his buddies before the state media, shone a rare spotlight on the sport by hosting the winning Russian team at his residence near Moscow.
“I’ll give it a go. I’ve already learnt how to stand up on ice skates,” joked Putin after one of the players asked him to try out bandy.
Veterans of the sport say that while its popularity may still be limited there is plenty about the game that can get the fans excited.
“It’s still unfamiliar with the public in many countries around the world but I’m positive that they will love it just after they have a chance to watch the action,” Russian bandy great Mikhail Sveshnikov told Agence France-Preese.
“It’s a fast-paced and high-scoring game and it’s very hard not to fall in love with it.”
But the game still seems to have a long way to go before the crowds come flocking.
On a recent evening only a handful of places were taken at a stadium just outside Moscow as local team Zorky took on Rodina from Kirov in central Russia.
“Unfortunately young people don’t come to watch this game. I can’t understand why,” Zorky fan Maxim Bobrov told AFP.
Bobrov said that while bandy is more popular in its stronghold in the vast eastern region of Siberia it struggles to compete with other sports elsewhere.
“Look at what is happening in the east. Over there the stadiums are full with some 5,000 or 6,000 people coming to each game,” he said.
“Maybe its because they don’t have any alternative. But here we also have football and ice hockey.”
That, however, has not stopped those in charge of the game here setting their sights high.
The Federation of International Bandy (Fib) chief Boris Skrynnik said he is convinced the game can gain international popularity and is currently pushing for it to be included at the Winter Olympics.
“I believe that bandy has the best chances among all of the winter sports to be included into the Olympic Games programme,” Skrynnik told AFP.
With major Winter Olympic powerhouses such as Russia, the US, China and the Scandinavian countries boasting teams, he says that should give the sport as good a chance as any of making it into the Beijing games in 2022.
“I don’t see any serious obstacles that can prevent our game from becoming an Olympic sport.”
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