The bitter cold gripping the Russian city of Kazan is surely foreign to the Hapoel Tel Aviv athletes, who face Rubin Kazan tomorrow in their Europa League round of 32 opener. But don't expect Kazan's players to feel at home in the cold, either - they've spent most of the winter at training camps in warmer climates elsewhere in Europe, such as the southern coast of Turkey.
One Russian journalist covering their training in Turkey was struck by the observation that there were no fewer than 16 coaches and trainers for the team's 24 players. Kurban Berdyev, the head coach who has become a kind of guru in Russia, stayed in the middle of the pitch handing out directives to the coaches as they ran in and out.
His coaching style paid off against Barcelona, which his team took four points from in two Champions League matches, including a rare win at the Spaniards' Camp Nou stadium. Berdyev intends to memorize every detail about Hapoel Tel Aviv, down to its player's shoelaces.
At the training camp in Turkey, he also hired a team made up of dozens of doctors from a local hospital. At the end of every run or other physically demanding activity, a blood sample was taken from every player's ear to evaluate each one's physical capabilities.
Apparently, Berdyev is leaving nothing to chance. Last week he forbade a Norwegian television crew from filming a practice at the second training camp in Spain, saying it might disrupt his player's concentration.
It might be hard to believe that the coach leading this scientific revolution in soccer is devoutly religious. His associates often say the only time Berdyev isn't thinking about soccer is when he's inside a mosque.
As for his players, they are loyal to him, even if they don't completely understand him. After getting married during the winter break, Kazan's Spanish defender Cesar Navas wanted to bring Berdyev a gift - a leg of ham, which is typically served at a Spanish wedding. Only at the last minute did the Spaniard learn his Muslim coach would have a heart attack upon receiving such a gift.
It's just as well that coach Eli Guttman and Hapoel Tel Aviv play in Kazan tomorrow. The forecasted high of -9 degrees Celsius should scare away the fair-weather fans and leave the stadium relatively empty. But they will still have to contend with a highly motivated home side - Kazan players' salaries are based on generous performance-related bonuses. Besides, this team belongs to Berdyev, who sees this round as merely a minor obstacle en route to a new height - a European final.
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