Russia cherishing 2018 Soccer World Cup cheer
Messi, Ronaldo (Getty Images)
Veliky Novgorod - Halfway between Moscow and Saint Petersburg in a city abandoned by time, the ball pings across the slushy snow as boys emulate the stars who will shine at the 2018 World Cup.
More than a thousand years old, Veliky Novgorod has followed the fate of many other historic Russian cities, losing its lustre and burdened by the grim realities of provincial life.
But social problems seem that little bit less important as the world's most celebrated sports event approaches, filling abandoned corners of Russia with the thrill of the beautiful game.
Watchful parents are bundled up in parkas while their children zip around a fenced-in courtyard stripped down to their sweatshirts and woolly hats, elastic scarves around their necks.
The fence is made of steel beams covered in peeling rust, painful to bounce off of and emblematic of the life of hard knocks Veliky Novgorod has endured since the Soviet Union's fall.
Yet the focus here is squarely on football, which in the northern Russian springtime is played by kids in conditions more suitable to skiing.
The boys come prepared. They split up into teams, dressed in jerseys with numbers on their backs.
Each has his own pair of football boots, some new and some worn, which surprisingly maintain a solid grip on the mix of snow and ice packed tightly into the ground.
A deep-blue sky above and decrepit apartment blocks around them, the boys hop, skip and dream - each conjuring up a fantasy of playing in a World Cup of their own.
A flock of pigeons spring up from the skeletal trees, scared off by the shrieks of sheer joy that football brings to every corner of Russia - even ones unfamiliar with big city comforts.
They kids take breathers plunked down on mounds of snow, puddles forming around them under the first licks of the sun's warmth.
And once completely exhausted, the boys pack up their footballs in a big net sack, toss them in the car trunk along with their dreams - until the next game.