Russia fearful for national team, but ready to welcome the world
In the first of his dispatches from the World Cup in Russia, Eliot Rothwell explores why so many Russians are downbeat about their national team's chances, but nevertheless excited at what the World Cup may bring...
On the final weekend of the Russian domestic season, I took the metro to Chertanovo, in southern Moscow. Timur Zhuravel, a broadcast journalist who presents English football coverage for Russia’s Match TV, met me outside the station. Chertanovo is his local neighbourhood. It’s where he enrolled at school as a child, where he played his first football matches and where he still lives. It’s a green, tree-lined area, with large apartment blocks and a few modern shopping centres.
As we set off, Timur began pointing left and right, showing off his neighbourhood. “This is where [former Everton winger] Diniyar Bilyaletdinov went to school”, he said, gesturing towards a squat brick building. “Here’s where I learned how to play football”, he smiled, nodding towards another. “Now we have a new team”.
We emerged from a park onto a street surrounded by trees. It was quiet. Only a few cars drove by. But ahead of us, a group of people in blue tracksuits crossed the road. Above them, a set of floodlights beamed their rays into the sky. We followed and walked through the turnstile. It was free. Inside the stadium, hundreds of fans packed into the only stand. They unleashed flags, banners, scarves, drums and flares. This was a promotion party. The local side, FK Chertanovo, had already won their section of the Russian third tier. After the game, players and fans shared their joy on the pitch, taking photos, draping each other in flags, enjoying the moment.
Their story received wide attention in Russian football circles. Chertanovo are different. They have financial backing but they also have a project, a philosophy. They use local, young players, developed in the club’s nearby football school. In Russia, where the usual trajectory is billionaire takeover, marquee signings, loss of interest and eventual dissolution, Chertanovo stand out. They are an example of best practice, of doing things ‘the right way’. Only Sergei Galitskiy and Krasnodar have adopted similar ideals.
On the pitch, after the final game of Chertanovo’s season, Artyom, a Chertanovo fan, lamented, “we can produce great players here, but the national team is just s**t”.
FK Chertanovo celebrate (Eliot Rothwell)Eurosport
He reflected a darkening mood around across Russia. There is little hope about their side’s chances in the World Cup. Their leading striker, Aleksandr Kokorin, is injured, as is their best centre-back Giorgiy Dzhikiya. They enter the tournament as the team placed lowest in the world rankings, following trudging, soulless friendlies against Austria and Turkey. The opening game, against Saudi Arabia, appears dangerous. Russian fans expect a win. The Russian state expects a win. The players, though, show few signs of being able to deliver. If the opening game goes wrong, if Russia come away with anything other than an exciting victory, fans will turn away. They know, without three points from the first game, their team have very little chance of getting past Egypt and Uruguay.
When Russian football fans discuss their national team, they wonder how it came to this. They point to the size of their country, the vast wealth, the deep history of football. They can’t fathom why Stanislav Cherchesov, the Russia head coach, has been forced to rely on CSKA Moscow centre-back Sergei Ignashevich, who turns 39 during the tournament.
Russia is a football country falling out of love with its own domestic game. On any weekend, in any of the country’s big cities, bars and pubs are packed with fans. They gather, on Saturdays and Sundays, with a couple of beers and some grenki, the long, black garlic bread sticks. They come for the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga, with little thought for what is going on in the Russian Premier League. Many people in Russia only support a foreign team. They back Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea or Manchester United. Spartak Moscow, CSKA Moscow and Zenit St Petersburg hold no appeal. This attitude filters down to mid-table clashes, too. It’s often a challenge to even find a place to watch a bog-standard Russian game. Burnley v Brighton will always trump Tosno v Ural.
With this attitude, it’s not difficult for Russian fans to look beyond the national team to their regular, weekend heroes. A group stage exit will not kill off enthusiasm among locals. For them, this is a unique opportunity to see the world’s best footballers in their home cities. For people in the smaller cities, especially, those that never imagined Lionel Messi would one day visit, the mood around the tournament is detached from Russia’s chances. They want to savour the experience, the weeks this summer when people from all over the world will arrive for a party. They want to talk, laugh and drink with people from Colombia, France, Peru and everywhere else. They want to have fun, a festival of football.
More than football, Russians hope to alter some of the perceptions of their country. People read Western news stories, or watch television broadcasts, with dismay. They see violence, homophobia, racism, Novichok. They see vodka, bears and Vladimir Putin. But across each of the 11 host cities, people say they hope to demonstrate that Russia is just another country on the eastern edge of Europe. They point to the impacts of globalisation, to the same music, fashion, food and brands that people enjoy all over the world. They are convinced that when fans arrive, thoughts of geopolitics and world leaders will fade. People will form human bonds. They will develop commonalities across national divides. They will see that Russia isn’t so different from the rest of Europe.
Peru fans hold a part in Moscow (Eliot Rothwell)Eurosport
For Russia’s young people, this is especially important. The generation born around the dissolution of the Soviet Union has known little but the new, capitalist Russia. The World Cup will be the largest international event in their lives. For them, it’s an opportunity to meet with thousands of people from all over the world, to step away from the legacies of the Soviet Union and form memories that do not rely on the tales of their parents and grandparents.
The Russian people are ready. Across the host cities, there is a crackle of excitement. In Moscow, on the days leading up to the opening match, the streets around Red Square heaved with fans from all over the World. Russian flags intermingled with those of Mexico, Iran and Colombia. The people here are determined to savour every moment. More than anything, it is their World Cup.