The 2014 Winter Olympic Games were a dazzling showpiece for Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Sochi was the most expensive Games yet at cost of $50 billion, in a city where Putin likes to holiday. On the slopes and rinks, Russia’s sportsmen and sportswomen were able to dominate, showing off the nation’s competitive prowess with a record-equalling 13 gold medals.
Mother Russia’s favourite son had presided over a sporting success story, though one that would later be tarnished by failed drugs tests. There is no such expectation of reflected glory for the 2018 World Cup for Putin.
Russia’s team, currently coached by former USSR/CIS/Russia goalkeeper Stanislav Cherchesov, are widely expected to be as much of a tournament bust as South Africa were in 2010, and co-hosts Ukraine and Poland both were at Euro 2012, in failing to get out of the group stage. And that’s despite a draw of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay that raised many an accusation of warm balls in the Kremlin Palace.
Cherchesov has received a hospital pass that his immediate predecessors dropped. In last week’s FIFA rankings, his team had dropped four places to 70th, sandwiched between Guinea and Macedonia and the lowest ranked of all 32 in the finals. Luckily for Cherchesov, or perhaps unluckily should they suffer an embarrassing loss with Putin watching on in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Thursday, his team kick off against the team closest in the rankings, the 67th placed Saudis.
At least Cherchesov does not have much of an act to follow. Fabio Capello was hired in July 2012 to lead Russia right through to 2018 yet ended up being sacked three years ago, picking up a compensation package that cost the Russian Football Union a reported $35m. Russia were dreadful at the 2014 finals, and were struggling to qualify for Euro 2016 when the bullet came.
Capello spent much of his tenure grumbling about the lack of players available to him, and bemoaning the amount of foreigners in the Russian Premier League, which is full of South American talent. Such a complaint might be familiar to those who recall his highly disappointing spell in charge of England. Successor Leonid Slutsky, later of Hull City, was asked to job share with his role at CSKA Moscow but could not prevent that failure to make an expanded 24-team Euros.
Cherchesov, recognised for motivational skills and an eye for young talent, was handed the reins. He survived his team beating only New Zealand at last summer’s Confederations Cup, perhaps as a result of lavishing heavy praise on the motivational qualities of Putin after the president had helicoptered in and delivered a rousing speech ahead of kick-off. “When the president of our country comes out to make a speech it mobilises us and gives us great motivation,” he said, and more of that can be expected after Thursday’s match, whatever the result.
In the post-Soviet era, Russia has a poor tournament record compared to the old USSR, with only Guus Hiddink’s Euro 2008 team making any kind of dent with players like Andrey Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Yuri Zhirkov starring to reach the semis before losing to eventual champions Spain. Those Capello moans about a lack of emerging talent are underlined by the presence of Sergei Ignashevich, the captain, in both that team and that of the present day.
Ignashevich is now 38, and Russia have never found anyone to replace his skills and organisation in central defence. He even had to come out of international retirement after Rubin Kazan’s Ruslan Kambolov withdrew with injury. At least fellow 2008 survivor and CSKA colleague Igor Akinfeev, Russia’s seemingly perennial goalkeeper – who set the tone for 2014’s exit with a catastrophic error in the first match against South Korea – is only 32.
Cherchesov, whose 23-man squad contains five players 24 or under, has made attempts to refresh but has been cursed by a spate of cruciate knee ligament injuries. Georgy Dzhikiya of Spartak and Viktor Vasin and CSKA were set to change up the defence yet succumbed, while Alexander Kokorin, of Zenit St Petersburg would have been a first-choice forward before suffering that same injury. Only two of the 23, reserve goalie Vladimir Gabulov of Club Brugge and Villarreal winger Denis Cheryshev, play outside Russia.
That enforced constant chopping of changing in preparatory friendlies, against admittedly reasonably difficult opposition, means Russia enter the finals without a win in seven matches. Last Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with Turkey saw Cherchesov adopt the defensive tone of a manager under pressure.
“I am not a therapist to reassure someone,” he said. “We are going on our own path and our main task is to believe in ourselves. We also need the fans to believe in us.”
That belief appears in short supply, such that the expectation is Russia’s role in the tournament will be reduced to that of genial host. Putin may fervently desire that his national team assert his country’s power and superiority but there is little chance of that.