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.
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’.
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.