To Vladimir Putin, an apology is owed. Not only has his Russian Federation shown itself to be a safe, welcoming place to visit for those travelling to the World Cup, but the host nation’s ‘Red Machine’ of a football team has proven itself to be a team of huge talent and seemingly limitless energy.
Predicted, by this writer as well as many far more learned experts, to be consigned to the dustbin of hopeless hosts alongside South Africa from 2010, Stanislav Cherchesov’s team have instead got off to a historically bright start, winning 8-1 on aggregate over their first two games.
Saudi Arabia, who on Wednesday held a Uruguay team featuring Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani to a single goal, were blown away 5-0 in a curtain-raiser far more spectacular than Robbie Williams could muster. A team without a win in seven warm-up matches brought to mind the theatrical adage that a bad dress rehearsal is a good sign for the actual performance.
The Luzhniki Stadium was treated to a display of shock-and-awe before Egypt – even allowing for Mohamed Salah being indisposed and much reduced by his shoulder injury – failed to cope with the waves of Russian attack in St Petersburg, and succumbed 3-1. Their goal, a Salah penalty, only came after a VAR call overturned what the Paraguayan referee had somehow deemed a foul outside the box.
The Russians hardly need benevolence from officialdom considering their players are so full of running. They have swarmed all over their opponents. Nobody in the World Cup has yet travelled as far as the 118km they racked up against the Saudis, with only the 115km covered against Egypt, a game won by the 62nd minute, coming within a country mile of such output.
Aleksandr Golovin, whose skill and invention decorated those two wins, is the tournament’s long-distance Clara with an average of 11,853m covered over two matches. Behind him in the table are team-mates Alexander Samedov on 11,679m and Iury Sandinsky on 11,392m. Golovin has now been linked with a move to Chelsea, where Roman Abramovich would just love to have a Russian star. And elsewhere in the team, a country bemoaned in pre-tournament for an inability to produce homegrown talent boasts other breakout stars.
Striker Artem Dzyuba, all 6’ 5” of him, lives up to the football cliche of having a good touch for a big man, and looked every inch a Tony Pulis wet dream in crashing home goals in both matches. Villarreal’s Denis Cheryshev, the only outfield player plying his trade outside Russia, has been a revelation as joint-top scorer, his success surprising even Cherchesov, who had left the winger on the bench in Moscow before Alan Dzagoev suffered an early injury.
The shock factor has caught out even the Russian public, it appears. Observers in St Petersburg noted almost as many Egypt fans as Russian in the stadium on Tuesday night, before in the aftermath of victory, the streets of that city and Moscow were filled with unbridled, impromptu celebration.
A Russian team doing so well on the international stage is hugely important to Putin’s nation and it is here a note of caution might be sounded. Russian sport’s previous record on performance enhancing substances is hardly unblemished. Anyone wishing to know something of the depth of the issue is advised to watch “Icarus”, Bryan Fogel’s excellent documentary from last year.
The 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Putin’s last opportunity to show off the glory of Mother Russia, and where record medal success was delivered, continues to be shrouded in dispute and accusations of state-sponsored doping. This year at Pyeongchang’s Olympics Russian athletes were not even able to compete under their own flag following an IOC ban.
And the stink has wafted as far as the footballers.
Last year, it emerged that Russia’s players at the 2014 World Cup were being investigated for doping violations, only for FIFA to announce last month that the investigation had been partially closed due to “insufficient evidence”, which seemed a little convenient.
Such a combination of factors serves to raise eyebrows across the world, and especially considering those previous low expectations of Russia’s team before the tournament, though it goes without saying that nothing has been proven and that the hosts are by no means the only footballers to have faced such accusations.
Whatever lies behind their success, Russia have located a formula to compete at this World Cup. They have given the Russian people plenty to cheer about and become a team to fear. Whichever of Spain or Portugal from Group B faces them will know they face an opponent of power, energy and belief. And who would have thought that before last week’s kick-off?