FIFA World Cup 2018: Low expectations from unknown faces at home

For a country hosting the grandest football event on the planet, Russia’s football team was curiously a minor player in the build-up to the tournament.

Published: 14th June 2018 05:41 AM  |   Last Updated: 14th June 2018 09:42 AM   |  A+A-

Russia football team

Russian national team players during a training session | AP

Express News Service

MOSCOW: Katia Prohkorova smiles nervously and shakes her head. As someone who signed up to volunteer for the football World Cup, one would have expected her to have a better answer for the question. How many members of the Russian football team do you know? “Zero,” she admits.

Outside the stadium, 19-year-old Yurik has a better answer. He can name five, but that too seems somewhat inadequate. Of course, Katia and Yurik might be the only two people in Russia who can’t belt out their entire 23-man World Cup squad — the fact that no one speaks English here makes a more detailed survey difficult. But chances are, they are not.

READ | Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov ignoring critics ahead of FIFA World Cup opener

For a country hosting the grandest football event on the planet, Russia’s football team was curiously a minor player in the build-up to the tournament. Of course, South Africa had a bad team in 2010, but no one would look back and conclude that they had failed to capture their country’s imagination.

The Sbornaya (as the Russians are called), though, appears to be an afterthought. The billboards around Moscow are pla­stered with the faces of Leo Me­ssi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez. Fans would be hard-pressed to spot Igor Akinfeev or Yuri Zhirkov. Indeed, the one th­ing involving the Russian te­a­­m that captured a lot of eyeba­l­­ls was a mocking song that im­­agines Chechen strongman Ra­mzan Kadyrov as its new manager.

“Football is not the biggest thing in Russia,” Katia says. “We love our ice-hockey. The clubs have their dedicated fanbases. But national team is very bad.” ‘Very bad’ is an understatement. A day before the World Cup, the Moscow Times’ lead headline read ‘Why Russia is doomed to fail’.

READ | Hosts Russia have point to prove in FIFA World Cup opener

The hosts are the worst ranked team of the World Cup, 70th on the FIFA table. Their opponents on Thursday, Saudi Arabia, are the next worst at 67. They haven’t won a game in 2018. Manchester United star Andrei Kanchelskis described this as the worst Russian team ever. Even President Vladimir Putin admitted that they have been pretty bad lately.

On the flip side, all that has led to some very low expectations for their opening game. Russia’s coach Stanislav Cherchesov appeared unusually relaxed in his pre-match briefing. “Our mood is very good, we are ready to work,” he said. “We did a lot of work in Austria and we have reached a good recent level, especially against Turkey when we showed a bit of the game we want to play.”

“Why will we win tomorrow? Because we really want it,” he added. All signs point towards that prediction going wrong on Thursday. But if he could somehow get it right, Cherchesov and his men will set the World Cup alight.

Predictor cat picks hosts

According to a supposedly clairvoyant cat, Russia will win their opening fixture against Saudi Arabia on Thursday.

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