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With the FIFA World Cup just a few months away, there seems to be no sign of a credible challenge by host nation Russia. Indeed, anyone who felt that, eventually, Russia would get their act together and assemble a half decent squad, has revised predictions on how the home team will fare this summer.
Under-performance by Russia will be a problem for FIFA as well as Mr Putin & Co. Firstly, any World Cup needs a respectable display by the hosts to maintain local interest. Secondly, in this instance (but not for the first time in World Cup history), the threat of early expulsion could be the catalyst for trouble away from football stadiums, and there have already been stories of Russian and Argentinian hooligans forming a pact to give the English a good hiding. This will do the event or Russia’s reputation no good given it has already been a problem to attract sponsorship and financial support for the second most controversial World Cup in history. The most dubious is, of course, Qatar 2022 – if it goes ahead.
Russia will go into the 2018 finals ranked 65th in the world, the lowest among the 32 nations taking part, although an absence of competitive fixtures is a contributory factor. In 2014 they were ranked 19th and an indication of how poor they currently are was seen in their Confederations Cup warm-up in 2017.
President Putin will be anxious that Russia puts on a good show and manages the logistics and security aspect of the competition well. It may be that regardless of the outcome for the football team, Russia wants the world to see a country in control of its showpiece. Putin has already addressed his police force and more or less told them the World Cup’s success depends on them, so they have the mandate to do whatever it takes to make sure that happens. But rumours persist that Russia is not ready and that drug cartels are preparing to flood the country with illegal substances. Added to that, there are fears that Russia will suffer a plague of locusts “a biblical intervention” in the summer. You couldn’t make some of this up.
And then there is the great Russian doping debate, with football now coming under the spotlight. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian press is talking of possible post-World Cup antics by Putin that will quickly render the World Cup unimportant.
Putin has an election to contend with in March. The economy and living standards will dominate the narrative and Putin has said he wants to halve the country’s poverty rate, which currently stands at 13.4%. Russia may have emerged from recession in 2017 with GDP growth of 1.5%, but living standards for too many people are apparently not good.
They are unlikely to get much cheer from their football team. Russian football punches below its weight, although in this season’s UEFA Europa League, they have three teams – Zenit, CSKA and Spartak – in the last 16. Furthermore, attendances are up this year to an average of almost 13,000.
According to Constantin Gurdgiev, economist at Trinity College Dublin, young working class Russians follow the local game, while cosmopolitan educated Russians align themselves to overseas teams like Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Regardless of that, Zenit St. Petersburg were ranked at number 11 in Soccerex’s recent report on football finance, thanks to the backing of oil and gas giant Gazprom and CSKA Moscow and Spartak Moscow also featured in the top 100.
Game of the People interviewed a leading Russian manager in the summer and he explained the current state of domestic football in his country. Although admitting that the top league is in reasonable condition in terms of quality, he hinted that the vast wealth in the Russian game is not necessarily being spent wisely. “Young players do not have the motivation to improve or stretch themselves. They can earn top money in Russia so they do not feel the need to move abroad to get international experience. So they do not broaden their outlook or improve. This is not good for the national team.”
Stanislav Cherchesov, the national coach, is the latest to try and mould a set of mostly Russia-based players into a competitive line-up. Recent results, a 3-3 draw with Spain and a narrow defeat against Argentina have been more encouraging, but there appears to be a distinct lack of quality.
Cherchesov has said that he wants to get out of the group stage and then see what happens, but they will initially come up against Uruguay, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, not the toughest group but certainly one that will challenge the current Russian team. Should they finish in the first two, they will probably face Spain or Portugal, which should be the end of Putin’s dream.
But what of Cherchesov’s squad? In the recent past, there have not been enough young players, but recent selections have seen the pendulum shift, with 17 of 27 players aged between 21 and 28. Only two players have been chosen from non-Russian teams. Russia will rely on goalkeeper and captain Igor Akinfeev of CSKA and his club team-mate midfielder Alan Dzagoyev, if he can steer clear of injury. Two strikers who top the domestic scoring charts, Aleksandr Kokorin of Zenit and Fyodor Smolov of Krasnador will be expected to step-up to the international stage.
And it is the international stage that will mean so much to Russia as it welcomes fans from across the globe. Commentators believe the World Cup is Russia’s chance to change the popular view of the country given sentiment is at Cold War levels. But the fact is, more than seven years after being awarded the competition, Russia’s activities have created that scenario. If the bidding was being carried out today for a World Cup, Russia would certainly be excluded.
So what can we expect? Notwithstanding the string of poor tournaments we’ve seen, Russia has so much pressure in its shoulders – from the ability of their players to avoid humiliation to ensuring there are no logistical disasters and that visitors to the World Cup come away with a positive experience. There have been few World Cup build-ups that have been so dominated by non-football affairs than this one. Regardless of our political persuasions or any misgivings we have about FIFA’s selection process, we should hope that we get a competition that is worthy of the competition’s name. Otherwise the Putin propaganda machine will have to work overtime.