You don’t need to be a scholar of Russian history to know that this is not a country that likes to play the underdog. When you’re the largest country in the world and you have military might and natural resources, it doesn’t really fit. Nor does it jibe with the narrative of the Czars or the Cold War or the current Russian president or Olympic success, whether summer or winter. Whether you like or dislike the Russian bear, you will no doubt agree that he’s a big old fella who you really don’t want to make mad.
And then there’s the Russian football team. They hatched at this World Cup as the ugliest of ugly ducklings, winless in seven games before the 5-0 stomping of Saudi Arabia in the opener and with just one victory — over South Korea — in the previous 11 months.
And now, after knocking out Spain, they face Croatia in a quarterfinal. It’s an unreal turnaround. Is this another case of Russia outwitting the rest of the world? Have they turned into a strong, powerful and ill-tempted swan?
Not quite. In fact, very little suggests that Russia have actually improved much at all. And the way they played against Spain was distinctly un-Russian. It was hunkering down, filling the space in front of Igor Akinfeev with as many live bodies as possible and clogging the passing lanes. And, when they did win possession, it was about smacking the ball into space for Artem Dzyuba to magically tame, while Aleksandr Golovin somehow tried to run off him.
It was ugly. And not just the Spain game, either. They have committed an average of 17.5 fouls a game. Only South Korea (21) and Morocco (20.6) have fouled more, but there’s a big difference. Those two weren’t involved in two blowout wins like Russia enjoyed against Saudi Arabia and Egypt. And that matters because you tend to commit fouls when you’re behind and when you don’t have the ball. But Russia managed to foul 22 times against Saudi Arabia… in a game they won 5-0.
This is “third-division team with a leaky roof over the only covered stand versus Champions League powerhouse” type stuff. And it doesn’t reflect the country because, well, Russia aren’t underdogs.
Hosting a World Cup, like an Olympiad, may be a giant beauty contest where a nation makes itself pretty in an attempt to boost the economy, generate future business and generally gain clout in the world. Russia as a host has been welcoming, efficient and clean, contrary to some of the worst doom-and-gloom predictions. Russia as a football team has offered a product that neither wins friends nor influences people.
You can be sure the guy running the show, Stanislav Cherchesov, the man whose mustache and Yul Brynner dome make him look like a strong man escaped from a 19th-century variety show, is well aware of all this. And you’d suspect this is not the sort of football he wants to play.
But then what is he supposed to do?
Already winning admirers to the West was going to be tricky for the simple reason that Russia are not particularly good. Other than the permanently injured Alan Dzagoev and Golovin, who, lest we forget is still just 22, there are no box-office players. Normal people tend not to buy Sergey Ignashevich replica jerseys (unless, of course, their last name happens to be Ignashevich).
Throw in the fact that even their opening win was met by sneers the minute the “distance covered” and “number of sprints” statistics were released, showing Russia were basically outworking everyone. When former head of the Russian FA and former Russian Minister of Sport Vitaly Mutko gets banned for life by the International Olympic Committee after they find “systematic manipulation” of the anti-doping system, and he also happens to be the guy who hired you, then it’s not hard to see how life gets tricky for Cherchesov.
Who, incidentally, also lost his best striker (Aleksandr Kokorin) and three of his best defenders (Viktor Vasin, Georgi Dzhikiya and Ruslan Kambolov) to injury, which is why Ignashevich, who turns 39 before this tournament ends, had to leave his summer dacha and come out of retirement.
Yet at the same time, he also has to please Russia and, in particular, those who feared the team would embarrass the nation by not getting out of the group stage. We may get particular about how our club sides play, but in international football, results are paramount. And Russia, somehow, got them.
So spare a thought on Saturday night for Cherchesov every time you see Ignashevich wind back his leg to pump it long to Dzyuba. It’s no more what he wants to see than what you want to see. But, right now, it’s about results and serving your country. And, frankly, as long as Russia continue to advance, they don’t care how the goals come.
It’s neither a showcase for what he can do as a manager nor what a starlet like Golovin can do as a player. And, no, it doesn’t reflect well on Russia as an idealised sporting juggernaut either.
But hey, they’re still alive, something only half a dozen teams can say right now. And they’re showing that while hard work won’t make you pretty, it will — when coupled with a big dose of good fortune — make you successful, though not in the traditional Russian way.
Their run may well come to an end against Croatia. And if it does, there will be the usual criticism and recrimination. But in the meantime, Cherchesov deserves praise; he fulfilled his brief: getting Russia as far as he possibly could. And who knows? If you’re a Russia fan, the fact that he turned them into underdogs — big, humble, hungry dogs — might even make this that little bit more fun.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.
Soccer Schedule and Live Stream Channel : Soccer Recorded Stream & Schedule