Gamechangers: Aidana Otorbaeva, a different type of football hero
Bishkek: International footballers are often framed as heroes who give every ounce of energy for their country, but few players fit the description in such a literal sense.
In the first edition of Gamechangers – the-AFC.com's new weekly series highlighting great stories within the Asian women’s game – we meet Aidana Otorbaeva, the Kyrgyz Republic international who utilised her standing as a footballer to play a courageous role in the country’s fight against COVID-19.
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Few months in 2020 are likely to be looked back upon with great fondness, but July was full of particularly troubling days in the Kyrgyz Republic.
It was when the pandemic which has swept the world began to hit the Central Asian nation of six million the hardest.
At one point, Kyrgyz Republic was among the most affected countries on earth per head of population, and hospital staff in the capital city Bishkek suddenly found themselves pushed to breaking point.
Feeling that she could no longer sit and watch, Otorbaeva – the women’s national team footballer who had made headlines during her time at Spanish club Madrid CFF in 2018 – took to social media.
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Объединение волонтёров "Сообща" @soobsha начали работать со 2-июля. Мы помогаем врачам, напрямую контактируем с людьми заражёнными Covid-19. Наш "отряд" составляет 170 человек, но из активных нас 30. Мы призываем присоединиться всех, кто действительно способен на помощь. Рук КАТАСТРОФИЧЕСКИ мало! Масштабы работы большие! Все неравнодушные граждане, самое время сплотиться вместе, чтоб мы поскорее могли вздохнуть свободно и без опаски! Но для этого нам нужно приложить общие усилия! В эти тяжёлые времена друг у друга есть только мы сами и это проблема, которая захватила всю страну и затронула каждого!
“I am not a doctor. I do not know how to insert IVs, or give injections, I do not have the means to provide financial assistance,” she told her Facebook followers on July 3.
“But I am ready to volunteer. To help medical staff, run errands, or carry food. To make their job easier, somehow. I am not alone.”
Otorbaeva’s call to action resonated, and before long she was overseeing the independent, organised volunteer group ‘Soobsha’; which means ‘Together’ in Russian.
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Здравствуйте! 🙋 Мы - волонтёры Бишкека! Мы не умеем делать уколы и ставить капельницы, у нас нет медицинского образования, но есть желание помочь стране! Мы перестали видеться со своими родными и близкими,ходим в стационары, оказывая помощь самого разного характера, мы не были к этому подготовленны ни морально, ни физически. Но болезнь не спрашивает, когда ей наступать. Именно в такие моменты ты замечаешь, как много значит сплочённость народа. Только объединившись мы можем пронести такую ношу! Мы очень рады всем, кто может нам помочь по мере своей возможности. Кто физически, кто материально или даже просто распространением информации. Мы будем рады каждому из вас, но вы должны знать то, на что вы идёте. ◾Интервью наших волонтеров: https://m.ru.sputnik.kg/society/20200705/1048914381/kyrgyzstan-koronavirus-volonter-pomoshch.html ◾ Финансовая помощь для нужд врачей и пациентов! 0555889850 -ЭЛСОМ
“Because of the fact that I am a football player, in Bishkek, people more or less recognise me,” the 25-year-old told the-AFC.com. “They know that I played in Spain and I have a small audience on Instagram and Facebook.
“The doctors needed help. It's elementary, just to run around the (hospital) floors, to carry food and clean up. We went to volunteer that very evening, and actually everything started with that.
“I also duplicated my post on Instagram and the number of people who were ready to volunteer was a sufficient number to help the country. They began to write to me personally.
“I first created a WhatsApp group, and then an acquaintance helped create a group in Telegram, and the number of people who wanted to help, not necessarily in the red zone, increased every hour."
"In the group that we created at the very beginning, there are 500 people who exchange information and send a request if they need something.
"This is an initiative that has turned into a full-fledged association of volunteers, there are about 40 active volunteers who worked for three weeks, helped in hospitals and served people in hospitals around the city. I think we were able to help and facilitate the doctors' work.”
Working long hours, Otorbaeva and her team not only gave up their time, but willingly threw themselves into the front line, risking their own health and residing in a hostel; unable to return to their own homes for fear of transmitting the virus to loved ones.
Almost immediately, they came face to face with the pandemic’s devastating consequences.
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Рабочий процесс! 📷 Знакомьтесь с нашими волонтёрами со стационара в 94-ой школе.🤗 Ребята там находятся с 8ми утра до 8ми вечера, а так же, проживают вместе с мед.персоналом! Но при этом, они осознают, что мы все стремимся к единой цели и насколько их вклад велик в этом пути!🙏
“In fact, the situation was very dire,” recalls Otorbaeva. “Chaos was happening on every floor. The doctors did not have any time, some of the patients argued and people were not happy.
“It was scary, because, on the first day, the guys with whom I volunteered, they were faced with the fact that they needed to help move the body of one of the deceased. For them it was probably a lot of stress, shock, and it was all right in front of their eyes. These situations also existed later, but the first day was probably the most difficult, because we did not expect to see such a thing.
“What was described on social media, didn’t quite correspond, it is one thing when you read it, and (another) when you see it in reality.”
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📌Волонтерское объедение "Сообща" уходит на двухнедельную обсервацию после 3х недель работы. ❗Но наша помощь на этом не останавливается.❗ 🧷Мы так же будем раздавать Гум. Помощь в регионы. 🧷Мобильная команда будет выезжать на вызовы с концентраторами. Наша команда очень надеется, что после обсервации не вспыхнет новая волна, врачи отдохнут, а наша помощь в больницах и стационарах будет просто не нужна, так как в день уже не будут поступать по 1500 человек🙏 Но в случае чего, мы с боевой готовностью выйдем снова в ряд. Спасибо каждому, кто помогал и помогает в такое сложное для всех время ❤️ Только вместе мы смогли прийти к тому, что количество заражённых идёт на спад, а выздоровевших - растет. Выражаем глубочайшее уважение врачам и всем, кто не остаётся в стороне 🙏
Just as she had said in her initial Facebook post on July 3, Otorbaeva was far from alone.
Her team’s work was part of a surge of volunteer activity in Bishkek and beyond, with an army of helpers coming forward to help the nation navigate its bitter battle against the pandemic.
Bermet Baryktabasova, a Kyrgyz medical expert, credited those volunteers with saving “thousands of lives” in a New York Times article, which also made mention of Soobsha and Otorbaeva’s role, not that she was greatly affected by it.
“I'm not an impressionable person and maybe I’m somewhat restrained in terms of emotions,” Otorbaeva, who also operates a sports store, as well as a football school, explained.
“I had a friend next to me and she was more delighted than me. She read (the New York Times article) to me and translated it. It was cool. It's good when people are happier for you than you are.
“My acquaintances wrote to me that they were really proud of me. (It was) nice, but I think I didn’t let it through myself to the end. I would like to get there for another reason.”
That ‘other reason’ would ideally be football, which remains a driving force in Otorbaeva’s life.
A national team player from the age of 17, she experienced life as a footballer in Europe in 2018, when, having sent videos to prospective clubs, she travelled to Spain on a tourist visa, and eventually found a home at Madrid CFF.
Otorbaeva didn’t appear for the club in the top division, but it is clear that the experience left a significant impression on her, and she is hopeful that she has only scratched surface in terms of her impact in the women’s game in her country.
“The difference (in Europe) is absolutely in everything, in the approach and in how the coaches talk to you, starting with the quality of equipment,” she explained.
“I like the approach, the way coaches treat each player, approach them individually and ask what they need before each training session and whether they are worried about anything.
“The main activity (for me) is football, and not only to practice and play in a top club – of course this is the dream of any football player and football player – (but) to develop my school, I want to turn it into a quality football academy, where there will be a place where (players) will study, get an education, train and live. We do not have this in our country.
“Secondly, I want to cover all areas related to football. I don’t know what will happen… but at some point, I thought about maybe someday I’ll see myself among the people who are at the helm (of football in Kyrgyz Republic), so to speak.”
“I also to want to add, about feminism. My friends and I will soon go with a focus group to communicate on the topic of women's rights. Through football you can solve a lot of issues regarding equality and not only through football. In the future, I would also like to find some other areas. In general, in the regions (outside of the capital) as a whole.
“I am thinking about implementing some projects in the regions, because a lot of girls write to me from the regions who want to play football, but their parents are against it, and do not understand. They think this is not a woman's business.”
COVID-19 cases are, for now, steadily decreasing in the country, and while Otorbaeva remains wary of another spike, she can now at least ponder her short-term goals of regaining football fitness and getting back on the pitch.
The opportunity for that may come in Lithuania, where a club invited her to train earlier this year, only for the potential deal to be scuppered by the pandemic’s impact on international travel, although she remains hopeful that the offer will stand when borders reopen.
But whatever happens in Otorbaeva’s future, the summer of 2020 – in a totally different way to her experience two years earlier – has impacted her.
“Values change and you begin to value life and health more,” she said. “Because among the acquaintances, there were also a lot of sick people and those who died.
“Perhaps you were not familiar with some of them, nevertheless, everything seemed to be fine with them, then you find out the next day what happened, and they were gone.
"This is the value of life, and the value in relation to each other and how vulnerable we are all. You understand that there is nothing more valuable than life and health, not even football."
“You forget that before the volunteering there was a completely different life and everything was fine, everyone was doing their own thing. Well, probably this situation can also carry some positive changes in thinking and in people's attitude to each other.
“This situation famously showed that our people are very kind, and, thanks to the people, we got out of this situation. I hope that this is not temporary, but will continue, because they say the second wave will begin in the autumn.
“It warmed my soul that our people were so kind and united, ready to help, to give their last effort in order to make life easier for someone else, for someone else’s work.”
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