Soccer / Europa League / A Time to Play, a Time to Pray

Southern Turkey, late January 2010. Russian champion Rubin Kazan is holding a training camp, its first of the season.

The packed European competition schedule demands the camp be intensive. Rubin's iron-willed coach, Kurban Berdyev of Turkmenistan, is hoping to advance the club as far as he possibly can in European competition. As far, even, as May's final in Hamburg.

By all appearances it's a standard training session, until along the sidelines stops a bus, from which young coaches emerge, students of Russia's top coaching school. They record every one of Berdyev's drills in their notebooks, and video footage is collected to be analyzed later from every possible angle.

Rubin is the reigning Russian champion, based in Kazan, the capital of Russia's Tatar region. Berdyev and his charges host Hapoel Tel Aviv in the Europa League Round of 32 next week.

Reporters' first experience with Kazan often leaves them in shock. No fewer than 16 coaches and trainers worked with the team's 24 players, and Berdyev himself cut a Genghis Khan-like figure, standing almost motionless at the center of the pitch and quietly directing activity down to the last detail.

Various assistants occasionally approach the coach, receive terse instructions and rush to carry them out. Berdyev is assisted by about 10 assistants, each an expert in a specific facet of the game.

A steady flow of assistants have made stops in Tel Aviv in recent months to watch Hapoel in action - once it was athletic director Mohsen Muhammadiev, another time Berdyev's right-hand man Alexei Simionov.

The head coach is certainly no stranger to Hapoel, nor to the different incarnations the team may take at their encounter next week. "We are used to the 4-3-3 formation, in addition to the 4-4-2 formation," the coach says.

His approach is technical, organized - in a word, Soviet.

"The only time Berdyev doesn't think about soccer is when he's in a mosque," says Kazan's Turkish striker Fatih Tekke. Berdyev is a devout Muslim, often peppering his remarks with assurances that all will go according to Allah's will.

When appointed coach, his response was, "I want to coach and I believe, inshallah, that I have things to offer on the pitch."

He was right. Berdyev is today not only Kazan's head coach, but deputy club president.

Kazan has no lack of ardent haters in the Russian Premier League - particularly fans of Zenit St. Petersburg and the Muscovite clubs, who deride Rubin fans as Tatar chauvinists. Some supporters of rival clubs describe the team as a "political project" like Terek Grozny of Chechnya, a nod to Russia's minorities but little more.

But for Berdyev, the match against Hapoel is simply an opportunity to notch up another feat in a career filled with quiet, determined achievement, without an ounce of cynicism or self-doubt. The visitors from Tel Aviv would be wise to take example.