The bell tolls for Russia and to say the fans are fatalistic before Spain last-16 match would be an understatement
The bell tolls for Russia, the country’s first national team to make the knockout stages, and to say the fans are fatalistic would be an understatement.
Sunday Stanislav Cherchesov’s side come up against Spain, a squad loaded with more star power than Moscow has seen in the past half-century. “At least we’ll go out against the best,” one fan said after Tuesday’s 3-0 defeat by Uruguay when Russia’s round-of-16 opponents were confirmed.
Russia rolled over Saudi Arabia and Egypt to genuine surprise from home supporters who considered this squad one of the worst in the country’s history. But, as many Russians noted, grass does not grow in large swaths of those two countries and, when it came to playing a team like Uruguay, things took a turn for the worse.
After that reality check the Spain match looks like being more of the same. But far from being condemned, Cherchesov’s side has received praise. For a Russian squad that risked being one of the tournament’s main punchlines, the Spain match is almost a kind of valedictory, final lap; the players did their duty and scored some lovely goals along the way.
“Our boys are just fantastic,” said Yelena Iskayaeva, a 45-year-old former administrator who attended the match at a fan zone this week with two female friends.
“Nobody can really blame them if they lose and they’ve already given us a lot of happiness. Football isn’t our sport anyway.”
There are few illusions about beating Spain. “Honestly, it’s hard to imagine how we could overcome a team like this,” Dmitri Alenichev, the former footballer and now coach of Yenisey Krasnoyarsk, told Sport Express. “Only if there’s a miracle. But I don’t believe in one.” Many Russian fans recognise the Spanish players better than Aleksandr Golovin or Artem Dzyuba.
For the squad it is a bit like sizing up Goliath without a slingshot. Dzyuba compared the game to a boxing match between one “veteran, experienced” fighter and another “young and bold”. A journalist suggested Rocky Balboa as a model. “You could say that,” Dzyuba said. Rocky lost that one.
“This might be like an everyday match for the Spanish but for us this is the match of a lifetime,” Dzyuba added. “We need to die on the pitch, play at 200-300%, and only in that case will we have a chance. Right now our thoughts are only tied to playing our best game.”
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has said he will be watching the match though it is not clear whether he will be there in person. He has attended only one match, taking in the 5-0 rout of Saudi Arabia in the opening match of the tournament.
For the hosts it has been a mostly drama-free group stage, with transport infrastructure and stadiums dealing with an unprecedented influx of fans. The one blemish has come from revived concerns about doping after the former head of the Russian anti-doping lab said he recognised one of the squad as a former patient.
Russia’s team doctor shot back: “I’m ready to bet on a bottle of milk that the English have not given samples as often.”
On Friday the Russian squad’s official Twitter feed announced doping specialists from Fifa had come for a surprise inspection of the team before Sunday’s match. “We’ll quickly give the tests and return to preparing for our extremely important match against Spain!” the message said.
The World Cup has had the impact that the Sochi Olympics might have. But that competition’s legacy was overshadowed by the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of east Ukraine. Later doping allegations cast doubt on Russia’s medal count.
To the Russian press the recent doping allegations look like sour grapes from the West, the latest in an Us v Them death match that seeks to undermine Russian achievements.
Asked whether he was surprised at the Russian squad’s tournament-leading record for the kilometres run during the group stages, Alexey Sorokin, the head of Russia’s organising committee, said: “That sounds like a leading question. They’ve been tested several times for doping. The results are clear, everyone is clean.”
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