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6 May 2018 | Vladimir Gabulov: Winning can be a really painful process

Vladimir Gabulov, goalkeeper for the Russian national football team, talks tactics ahead of the 2018 World Cup.

“I never tried to analyze why Russians love football so much, but it is very popular everywhere: from the cities to the remote countryside,” says 34-year-old Vladimir Gabulov. Russian national team’s goalkeeper knows what it’s like to be a small-town football fan because he was one. Growing up in Mozdok, Ossetia, he was “born kicking a ball”, as he puts it. It was a family matter after all – Gabulov’s brother, Georgiy, has also gone on to play professionally.

“My brother and I were always running around with a ball. Our father and grandfather both loved the game, too, so I’d spend most days playing in the streets playing and then go and watch real matches with the grown-ups.”

By age seven, recognising his passion, Gabulov’s father enrolled him at a sports school. At 16, he was invited to join his hometown’s professional team. “That’s when I finally realized I was going to devote my life to football,” he recalls.

He picked his preferred position quickly. “I wasn’t a big fan of running - we had to do too many jogging training exercises, so I decided to become a goalkeeper. Then, for a while I decided that I wanted to score goals, too, and started to play in attack, but I wasn’t making it to team selection and so played less.” Then a fateful moment occurred. The team’s main goalkeeper got injured and Gabulov had to replace him during a game. “That’s when I realized I belonged in goal.” What does he think makes a great goalkeeper? “You have to be calm, hardworking and have a strong nervous system,” he laughs.

In 2001, Gabulov joined Dynamo Moscow, and travelled around the country learning the specifics of Russian football. “Our game is pretty intense and power-based,” he says, “But it’s very tactical, too.”

Despite playing hundreds of matches over the course of the last 18 years, Gabulov still remembers his first professional game. “I was anticipating something big and meaningful. I was the youngest player on my team and the goalkeeper’s role is very important. We won that game one-nil,” he says.

Last year, Gabulov signed a deal with Arsenal Tula, becoming both the club’s goalkeeper and team captain. While winning has always been on his mind, he says he didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming a captain. “I never seriously thought about that, but I it’s an honour to be entrusted with the responsibility. Now I don’t just focus on my own game. I have to consider the whole team.”

Playing for your club is one thing, but joining your country’s team is on another level. Gabulov says that there’s hardly any adjusting period between the national team’s players, who leave any club rivalries at the door. “We’re all familiar with each other, so it’s a very peaceful process. “We’re all professionals and share the same goal: the stronger the bond between us, the better result we show on the field.”

When it comes to the world of professional sport, “blood, sweat & tears” is not a metaphor. Yet Gabulov’s is reluctant to discuss injuries: “There’s no professional football player who’s 100% healthy. Almost every one of us feels some sort of discomfort or pain when he walks out on the field. And we know what we signed up for: football is the most traumatic sport of them all. Winning can be a really painful process.”

Asked what might come after football, Gabulov – a father of two – says that nothing is decided yet. “Last year I attended a sports management course, and this year I studied to become a trainer in a special group among other football players. Maybe I’ll write a book. I’ll think about when the time’s right. Right now, all I’m thinking about is playing football.”

And the 2018 World Cup approaches, which will be hosted by Russia in June and July, that’s what everybody else will be thinking about, too. Gabulov says he feels optimistic about the championship being held in his homeland. “I have absolutely no doubt that we will host the best World Cup yet. And I really hope the Russian team will be the talk of the tournament,” he says. Trust me – together, we have the potential to surprise everyone.”

By Mikhael Agafonov for Wizz Magazine, the inflight magazine of Wizz Air