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On Wednesday, in a cramped press conference room on the ground floor, Stanislav Cherchesov holds court. Alexander Samedov, the most experienced right winger in the Russian national team, looks totally disinterested in the proceedings.
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Perhaps, like many of his compatriots, the long wait for actual action to begin has resulted in attention fatigue. The fans, on the streets and on social media, have expressed their displeasure with the ‘Sbornaya’, the name they use fondly for their national team.
Thirty-six summers have passed since Igor Belanov won the Balon d’Or following which the country changed its name thrice to keep pace with the geopolitical revisions. The last occasion when they won a continental title was in 1960 when the world knew it as Soviet Union. Twenty eight years later, Belanov’s brigade made the finals of the European championships again, only to be bombed out by Marco van Basten’s volley and Rudd Gullit’s omniscient brilliance.
Even in Euro 2008, Andrei Arshavin, Yuri Zhirkov and Roman Pavlyuchenko had showed that all was not lost. The Russians made the semifinals and Arshavin won overnight fame undoing the Dutch almost single-handedly.
Lucrative transfers to the English Premier League was all the Russian trio could show for as their stint in England had little to write home about.
Since that night in Vienna when Arshavin worked wonders to mystify the Dutch, Russian football is in doldrums.
Fan ire and expectation are issues that modern coaches disregard publicly. Former Legia Warsaw coach and currently in charge of the hosts, Cherchesov isn’t any different. “We will win because we want to,” he said ahead of their opening campaign against Saudi Arabia, deemed as the contest between the lowest ranked teams in the tournament.
It’s not the kind of start that is expected to raise the temperature of the World Cup straightaway.
Maybe to lift the mood of the disgruntled local press, Cherchesov resorted to humour. When the microphone crackled and died, he said, “The moment head coach speaks, the mike fails to work.” He turned out to be the first one who laughed.
Spartak Moscow wing back Samedov, set to play in his second World Cup, was not trying so hard. “We would like the people of Russia to be proud about our team and we will try to make them proud as well,” he said in a grim baritone, obviously not in any mood for frivolity. Reminding that they have studied Saudi Arabia’s game, he said, “They are a technically well-trained side which likes to keep possession. We won’t let them do so.”
Samedov’s dourness might be a perfect reflection of what’s going inside the dressing room, even though the coach lauded the spirit of bonhomie and camaraderie. Depleted by injuries particularly to Zenit Petersburg striker Alexandr Kokorin in March, Cherchesov’s biggest hope rests with his goalkeeper, Igor Akinfeev. The CSKA Moscow goalkeeper has kept 18 clean sheets in 28 games all season.
Being hosts without being favourites is hardly an attractive position to be in and the Russia team are twitching in their boots. Juan Antonio Pizzi’s Saudi Arabia are not in great form either but Mo Salah’s Egypt and Luis Suarez’s Uruguay won’t let the Russians sleep till the league phase gets over.