Russia under pressure not as hosts, but as a footballing nation in decline
SAINT PETERSBURG, Russia -- Russia's underperforming national team cannot escape the sense that they are letting a proud country down, as their preparations for the 2018 World Cup on home soil begin in earnest with Saturday's Confederations Cup opener against New Zealand in Saint Petersburg.
The majestic new $1.4 billion Krestovsky Stadium on the banks of the Neva River is not sold out for the encounter with the champions of Oceania -- as of Friday, 7,000 tickets remained on sale -- and when locals are asked about the game, they quickly switch the subject to ice hockey and SKA Saint Petersburg, the new national champions. As for football? The subject elicits a universal "thumbs down" gesture that says everything about Russia's current relationship with its team just 12 months before World Cup kicks off.
Securing the right to host the World Cup was a personal triumph for Vladimir Putin; as if Stanislav Cherchesov's players were not under enough pressure to perform over the next fortnight and in 2018, the Russian president turned the screw even tighter this week by insisting that he and the country expect much more from their football team.
"Fans and those who love Russian football expect better results from our national team," Putin said during a televised phone-in on Thursday. "We all hope that the guys play with full commitment, like real warriors and athletes, to at least please the fans with their effort to win."
When asked about Putin's comments at his pre-match press conference, Cherchesov -- a former Russia goalkeeper -- did his best to deal with the curve-ball question, but the charismatic coach was clearly irritated by the intervention from the Kremlin.
"We are reading everything and listening to everything, so if our president talks about our national team, it shows he is following," Cherchesov said. "There was some criticism, yes, but let us talk about football -- we are talking about other things now.
"I am a diplomat. Talking a lot about nothing, right?"
Russia enter the Confederations Cup having won just three of their last 15 games, but the malaise stretches back almost a decade, with the run to the semifinals of Euro 2008 a fading memory. Fabio Capello's hugely-expensive reign as manager proved disastrous, and Leonid Slutsky's attempts to revive the team at Euro 2016 failed miserably: Russia claimed just one point in the group stage before being eliminated to the backdrop of negative headlines about their rioting fans.
Cherchesov, the team's second choice for manager after the job was turned down by FC Rostov coach Kurban Berdyev, arguably has a thankless and impossible task ahead of him in making Russia competitive at their own World Cup. Only South Africa in 2010 have failed to progress to the knockout stages as hosts, and there are genuine fears within Russia that their own national team will follow suit.
While they did emerge as a continental force under the former USSR, Russia have failed to escape their group at any World Cup since independence, and the current team is regarded as the worst to play under the Russian flag. And Cherchesov has limited options in terms of beefing up his roster.
His squad for the Confederations Cup consists solely of Russia-based players, with Guilherme Marinato (a naturalised Brazilian) called up at the age of 31. Key figures such as Alan Dzagoev, Artem Dzyuba and Roman Zobnin are sidelined due to injury, while veterans Vasily Berezutsky and Sergei Ignashevich have retired, leaving Cherchesov with a largely inexperienced group of players.
Cherchesov was tasked with guiding Russia to the World Cup semifinals when he was appointed as coach last August, but has admitted that simply making the country competitive again was the immediate priority.
"We have had some successes in the past [as the Soviet Union] but it is only natural that we want to bring forward our success with this team," he said. "We haven't really won a lot over the years but of course we want to achieve more than we have in recent years.
"Even if we were playing the World Cup in New Zealand, we would have wanted to get out of the group. But we have been changing a lot and it is a privilege to represent our country. We are inviting the footballers who are playing well to represent our country well, so let us see what the future brings.
"I don't like doubts. If you doubt, you lose."
There are some glimmers of hope. Aleksandr Golovin, the 21-year-old CSKA Moscow midfielder pursued by Arsenal, is regarded as Russia's brightest prospect since Andriy Arshavin, while Georgiy Dzhikiya's defensive performances for Spartak Moscow this season have marked the 23-year-old out as a potential star. But Russia lack depth and quality overall, and Cherchesov only has 12 months to devise a plan that will see his squad become greater than the sum of its parts.
Yet less than 24 hours after Putin waded into the debate over the strength of Russia's team, deputy prime minister Vitaly Mutko also added his voice to the discussion to ensure Cherchesov and his players were left in no doubt as to what is expected.
"When the tournament kicks off, the interest will increase and of course the focus will be on the Russia national team," Mutko said. "We know they have the character and desire to show themselves, but first of all, they will have to demonstrate their determination to be successful."
Russia expects, but meeting those expectations will be an almighty challenge.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_