Wednesday 12 December 2018

Surprise run turning up heat on Russian expectations

Cherchesov: Looking forward. Photo: Reuters
Cherchesov: Looking forward. Photo: Reuters

James Ducker

'I hope the most important matches are still ahead of us," Stanislav Cherchesov, the Russia coach, said when asked if the hosts would have to play the game of their lives to overcome Croatia in their quarter-final this evening.

Pressed on whether that was all he had to say on the issue, Cherchesov, who has a taste for the theatrical, replied: "Brevity is the sister of genius, as Anton Chekhov said."

If Russia reach the semi-finals of this World Cup, it will be a storyline so unexpected that even Chekhov, one of the country's greatest short fiction writers, might have struggled to imagine it.

'The Moscow Times', a weekly English-language newspaper, had declared on its front page on the eve of Russia's 5-0 demolition of Saudi Arabia in their opening game that the team were "doomed to fail", a claim that has subsequently drawn a severe backlash from President Vladimir Putin's apologists. But few fans took much umbrage to it, given how it largely reflected the national mood.

"Pro-Russian propaganda types were like, 'Look, they're only negative about Russia', but there's a difference about being negative from a sporting perspective and about the country in a more political sense," Evan Gershkovich, a reporter with the newspaper, said.

The mood, of course, has become more buoyant with every Russia success, peaking with their triumph over Spain on penalties in the last 16.

Anyone who saw policemen celebrating on the streets of Moscow with teenagers who could have been the same political activists they were beating up only months earlier, or thousands of fans pouring on to the streets of Samara to join a marching Russian brass band, will recognise that.

Indeed, it could reach almost frenzied levels if Aleksandr Golovin, Artem Dzyuba and Denis Cheryshev get the better of Croatia's midfield trio of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic and Marcelo Brozovic and take the country to within one game of the final.

Much like South Korea on home soil in 2002, the stars have been aligning for the Motherland.

"They have got a little lucky so far," Andrei Kanchelskis, the former Russia, Manchester United and Everton winger, said yesterday.

"They lost 3-0 to Uruguay after they'd already qualified and the one really strong team they've faced, Spain, sacked their coach two days before the tournament started, so we'll have to see what happens against Croatia. But it's been a great tournament for us. I'm very pleased."

Russia have collectively outrun every other team and Croatia will know they face a side riding a wave of euphoria and adrenalin.

It is a statistic which, given the country's recent record of endemic doping in sport, has raised eyebrows, even if Cherchesov has trumpeted the twin pillars of hard work and motivation. Yet the location for tonight's match offers a reminder of why some remain sceptical.

Russia were banned as a country from competing at the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February after a massive state-sponsored doping programme that corrupted the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The doping lab where Dr Grigory Rodchenkov would swap Russian athletes' dirty samples for clean ones is now a gastropub called La Punto and, surveying the glistening Olympic park, with the magnificent Fisht Stadium as its centrepiece, it is easy to forget it has such a sinister backstory.

If those Winter Olympics represented the start of Putin's attempted charm offensive through sport, the World Cup constitutes his propaganda machine in full swing.

No one realistically expects it to signal the beginnings of a move towards a more progressive, liberal government, just as few can be certain of what sort of legacy in football terms it will leave for the country.

Not even the carnival atmosphere has been enough to mask the angry protests that have been taking place over government plans to raise the pension age.

But that does not mean the tournament cannot be enjoyed for what it is - a wonderfully organised festival of football with some truly great games.

The Fisht Stadium has already been the scene of a thrilling 3-3 draw between Spain and Portugal, Germany's last-gasp 2-1 victory over Sweden and Uruguay's pulsating last-16 triumph over Portugal.

Another classic will be the most celebrated of the lot if Russia somehow edge out Croatia.

There have been some intriguing tales already. A potential Russia-England semi-final in Moscow, though, would probably be the most extraordinary of all and one of the most political matches in modern history, given the fallout from the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury in March, which led to British ministers and members of the Royal family boycotting the tournament, and the latest disturbing events in Wiltshire.

Gershkovich admitted the prospect of a semi-final between the countries was "unsettling". Both teams have significant hurdles to overcome first. Yet England now expects, and so, most unexpectedly, does Russia.

© The Daily Telegraph, London

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