It was little surprise when, on a June afternoon last year, Cristiano Ronaldo’s early header proved to be the only goal between Portugal and Russia. The host nation rarely looked like pulling level during their Confederation Cup tie in St Petersburg and of more interest, perhaps, was the enthusiasm of the support. Patriotic fervour was at a minimum but one thing kept a 43,000 crowd interested: Ronaldo was cheered feverishly virtually every time he had the ball.
The Russian fans had, quite literally, only come to see Ronaldo. But how different the dynamic around the national team is now. There is a good chance that, by the end of Monday’s games, the same two sides will have booked a round-of-16 meeting at the World Cup and nobody would be buying into too much hysteria around Portugal’s talisman this time around. In the space of 180 minutes, eight goals and some of the most exciting, high-tempo football to have been played at this year’s tournament, Russia have transformed the hopes of a nation whose relationship with the ‘Sbornaya’ has rarely been positive.
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“I think half the country will find out that we have a World Cup when the whistle blows,” the Russia manager Stanislav Cherchesov said on the eve of their opener against Saudi Arabia. He had a point. While an element of buzz was growing in the 11 host cities, helped along by the FIFA facilities and insignia that sprang up, in other parts of the nation you could have been forgiven for thinking nothing was happening at all. In such a vast country, examples are hardly in short supply: a personal one is that in Novokuznetsk, a city of 550,000 inhabitants situated 2,200 miles east of Moscow, not a single piece of visual evidence pertaining to the tournament presented itself during a three-day stay just before it kicked off.
“I’ll watch the games but we have no chance, the team is broken,” said Vladimir, a rare football fan in an ice hockey-loving part of the country, and his refrain was a common one. Russia were the lowest-ranked of the 32 teams going into the tournament and had gone seven games without a win in the build-up: in a country so difficult to unite, what exactly was there to get behind?
Now the answer is easy. Russia has, for the time being at least, a winning team and now football is a topic on everyone’s lips. It hardly matters what the sport is: people will lap up the taste of victory if it is there. Russia will have much sterner tests than a weak Saudi Arabia and an Egypt side encumbered by Mohamed Salah’s shoulder injury, but the manner in which a patched-up team blew both away has sparked a wave of interest that few had predicted.
Passions are running high to the extent that supporters have been advised not to watch Monday’s match with Uruguay – for which Cherchesov may rest players, with Russia guaranteed to qualify from the group and no obvious benefit to finishing first or second at the time of kick-off – from the official Fan Zone in Moscow. It has a capacity of 25,000, but what the Moscow mayor’s office has called an “unprecedented sporting celebration” has led to genuine fears of overcrowding.
In St Petersburg, bars stayed upon all night and supporters partied on the streets after the Egypt game. At the same time, Nikolskaya Ulitsa in Moscow – a pedestrianised thoroughfare leading to Red Square that has been the throbbing, pulsating hub of this World Cup’s fan culture in the past fortnight – swelled with an exuberance unprecedented in the country’s history.
“Go to Nikolskaya these days for happiness and store it up for future use,” the Novaya Gazeta newspaper advised its readers. The implication was that, when this is all over – when the travelling fans have dispersed and the part has left town – everyone will have to manage the comedown. Few expect the carnival atmosphere – probably the best at a World Cup since Germany 2006 – to outlast the tournament and there is a sense that every ounce of fun needs extracting from the next three weeks.

Denis Cheryshev

Image credit: Getty Images

That is why the national team’s form is so important. For a Russia supporter – new, lapsed or longstanding – it is a wave to ride, a reason to join the party, a means of continuing the fun. It helps that, after hardly producing a single top-class talent since Andrey Arshavin, Russia now has players to get behind. Aleksandr Golovin, the 21-year-old playmaker, has been outstanding so far and Denys Cheryshev’s unexpected impact on the wing has been profound.
Ayrtom Dzyuba, a controversial figure at club level, has swashbuckled up front and shown the kind of torso-rippling passion nobody had detected in the Sbornaya’s last half-decade. The military-style greeting Cherchesov gave Dzyuba after he came off the bench to score against the Saudis became the subject of widespread internet memes. The team has, to some extent, been created by accident after injuries to key players down its entire spine; to some extent that makes it more lovable and adds a sense of mystery, too as to how far this new blend can go.
In Samara, where Russia play Uruguay, hundreds of Russia fans marched in support of the team on Sunday. It was billed as a march in honour of the “moustache of hope”, a nod to Cherchesov’s facial hair arrangement. They waved flags bearing individual players’ names; fans danced, sang, chanted. A mere fortnight ago the relationship between supporters and team verged on the toxic; the turnaround has been almost impossible to comprehend.
The fun part it that the current mood will continue for at least another five days – six if Russia finish second in the group and play in Moscow on Sunday. Whatever happens next, this is no longer the worst team in Russian history or an XI that was on course to shame the nation – as many of the pre-tournament headlines had it. At long last, the world’s biggest country might just be united behind its own football team.
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