Stanislav Cherchesov smiled when asked by a Danish journalist whether he had a message for the Russian people on the eve of the opening match of a World Cup finals that is taking place in the largest country on the planet.
“You would be hard pushed to get around the labyrinth of the Russian soul,” the Russia coach replied. “I think half the country will find out that we have a World Cup when the whistle blows. It takes a long time for us to start driving but I think when we press the foot on the pedal, we go all the way.”
Russia, in other words, is not exactly gripped by World Cup fever in the way Brazil was four years ago, and the extent to which that mood shifts from apathy to excitement over the next couple of weeks is likely to hinge on whether the lowest-ranked team in the tournament can defy expectations and avoid the ignominy of being among the first guests to leave their own party.
Hopes are not high in that respect. The front page of the Moscow Times, 24 hours before Russia face Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium, provided a reasonable gauge of the mood in the country. “Ageing and inexperienced: why Russia is doomed to fail” ran the headline. “Destined for defeat” screamed the words above the article inside that lamented Russia’s failure to invest in a new youth programme once they were awarded the World Cup.
The fact Cherchesov’s players are without a win in their past seven matches and have registered only one shot on target in 180 minutes has fuelled the inescapable sense of pessimism, with plenty of media commentators, as well as former players, describing the current generation as the worst Russia team ever.
With all that in mind, Cherchesov could have been forgiven for walking into a packed media room in Moscow on Wednesday afternoon and looking like a rabbit staring into the headlights when the microphone was passed around the auditorium, yet nothing could have been further from the truth. The 54-year-old cracked jokes about James Bond and moustaches, revealed that his players had been relaxing by playing Trivial Pursuit and generally gave the impression that pressure was the last thing he was feeling.
“I can tell you I don’t read anything,” Cherchesov said, when quizzed about the negative backdrop in Russia. “Getting criticism is a natural thing in the world that we live in today. But we never touch upon this topic at all. We have to do everything to earn praise and do everything we can to turn criticism into positive feedback.”
That may be easier said than done, not least because there are clear signs that the Russia players are not as detached from the scathing media coverage as their manager.
“I see all that is happening from the negative side and I want to ask the media, because you are broadcasting to the people, to be positive,” Artem Dzyuba, the Zenit St Petersburg striker, said. “The tournament has not started yet and [the media] are behaving aggressively.”
In Saudi Arabia, the next-lowest-ranked team in the World Cup, Russia could not have asked for more obliging opponents for their first game in a group that also features Egypt and Uruguay, yet few within the host nation are taking victory for granted. Serious injuries to Viktor Vasin, Georgy Dzhikiya and Alexander Kokorin have robbed Russia of three nailed-on starters and raised the possibility of Sergei Ignashevich, who effectively retired from international football two years ago and turns 39 the day before the final, starting in central defence against Saudi Arabia.
Cherchesov, however, made Ignashevich’s belated return sound like it was all part of his grand plan. “As far as Ignashevich is concerned, I have the feeling that he never left us,” he said. “We kept track of him from day one, we reached an agreement with him and we kept our end of the bargain. He’s a cementing factor inside and outside of the pitch.”
Whether that turns out to be the case against Saudi Arabia remains to be seen. The Saudis have not won a World Cup match since 1994, when Saeed al-Owairan ran half the length of the pitch to score a brilliant solo goal against Belgium, but recent results suggest that they can be awkward opponents. Managed by Juan Antonio Pizzi, a former Chile coach, Saudi Arabia lost only 2-1 against Italy at the end of last month and were narrowly beaten by Germany on Friday.
An experiment in which nine Saudi players moved to Spain for the second half of the season to gain experience in a more competitive environment never worked, with few getting much game time, but this is the sort of stage – the opening match of a World Cup, in front of a huge global television audience – that should inspire Pizzi’s players. “We are ready, we are not afraid,” the former Spain international said. “Our goal is to beat Russia.”
The challenge for Russia, in contrast, is to galvanise a sceptical nation with the victory that would lift some of the gloom that has enveloped the team before a ball has been kicked and give everyone in this vast country a gentle nudge that the greatest sporting event of all is taking place on their doorstep.