MOSCOW (AP) As Russia prepares to host the 2018 World Cup, it is already looking to a future generation of soccer stars.
Government-funded programs to provide free coaching to children have sprung up across Moscow, with kids given the chance to learn the basics of the game for free.
The classes focus on fitness but also act as an informal scouting scheme for possible future pros, says coach Andrei Ilayskin. He runs sessions across Moscow, often on asphalt playing grounds in the courtyards between tower blocks.
''For the younger ones, let's say between 4 and 10 years old, they have technique and fitness training, as well as games,'' he told The Associated Press.
Ilyaskin is a former professional player who spent time with renowned club CSKA Moscow and won the league title in the neighboring ex-Soviet country of Belarus. That experience helps him to identify talented youngsters for the academies of Russian clubs.
''I have a word with the parents, and say that they can try it out,'' he said. ''If you're a coach, you have some connections.''
The Russian government is keen to promote soccer ahead of the World Cup, with Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko recently promising 7 billion rubles (nearly $100 million) to develop the sport.
However, for many of Ilyaskin's pupils the season will soon draw to a close ahead of the Russian winter. ''You have to understand that the conditions are for the summer. In the winter, you can have snow and so on,'' he says.