From day one, this World Cup needs Russia to shine

Forget what you might read elsewhere. The most important nation of the 32 teams in any World Cup will always be the one actually staging it.

Russia will host Saudi Arabia in the tournament’s opening match on Thursday night and although it has been pilloried as the weakest opener in history, it is a critical match if this tournament is to be remembered fondly.

The first match sets the tempo for the whole month, especially since the hosts began opening the event in 2006. Each match since – Germany against Costa Rica, South Africa against Mexico and Brazil against Croatia – has dictated the mood for the next month.

Germany’s was an all-out welcome-to-everyone party from day one. South Africa just wanted to avoid defeat, which ensured a nation’s pride remained intact, aided by a spectacular opening goal from Siphiwe Tshabalala.

Then there was Brazil, who suffered a most unbelievable weight every time they played, right from the moment they kicked off against Croatia and escaped with a nervy win – followed by an all-night party. Talk about a scene-setter.

Each opener was different in their own way but Russia is entirely different again. Perhaps it’s their natural disposition, but as kick-off approaches, it doesn’t feel like anyone here is biting their fingers.

For a nation that is staunchly patriotic, they are less than impressed with their own national team, which is having a cooling mood on the whole World Cup. There’s a few reasons why they’re adopting a wait-and-see approach.

Principally, this is a country that hates losing face on the international stage and it’s now 10 years since they advanced beyond the group stage of a major tournament.

The unavoidable fact is that Putin’s Russia doesn’t appreciate unfavourable outcomes. The thinking here has become quite binary in the past decade: Russia are winners; losers can please themselves.

I’ve been hit with more facts about Russian men’s ice hockey team than I have about the football team since my arrival. They won the gold medal in Pyeongchang in 2018, in spite of all the hurdles thrown at Russian athletes. Now that is a source of serious pride.

I can imagine it would have been similar after Euro 2008, when Guus Hiddink performed a minor miracle to get the Sbornaya (“the national team”) to semi-finals. But with an incredible run of outs – including a failure to make it out of the group of last year’s Confederations Cup on home soil – has badly undermined fan relations.

Also fresh in the memory are the infamous “celebrations” after Russia’s sloppy Euro 2016 exit, when the players racked up a $370,000 bar bill in Monaco, much of it caught on camera. Even Putin’s right-hand man Dmitry Peskov called it a “disgrace”.

Which brings us back to opening night. Will this be a Russian team that is willing to make national heroes of themselves? Are they even good enough to seize moment? Are their egos as big as their bank balances? Will they freeze under the pressure or rise to the occasion and provide the spark this tournament needs?

There’s no Roman Pavlyuchenko or Andrey Arshavin this time around. The evergreen Aleksandr Kerzhakov retired two years ago. It’s about combining aging war horses like Yuri Zhirkov and Sergei Ignashevich with the much-vaunted trio of Fyodor Smolov, Alan Dzagoev and Denis Cheryshev, none of who quite lived up to their world-beating expectations. Coach Stanislav Cherchesov has a patchy record at best, with better performances at club level in Poland than Russia.

But if ever there was a window to seize the moment, now really is the time. Defeat would be a disaster. A draw, given the Saudis are being written off by most, wouldn't be much better.

Irrespective of what you might think about this nation, its politics, people or anything else, for the good of the World Cup, this Russian team needs to rise to the occasion – and fast.

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4 min read
Published 14 June 2018 at 8:00am
By Sebastian Hassett in Kazan