Hosts Russia have harnessed World Cup momentum to defy expectations, galvanise a nation
Stanislav Cherchesov is rarely lost for a laconic response and kept a straight face when asked, half an hour after Russia had all but booked their place in the last 16 of the World Cup with a 3-1 win over Egypt, whether this had been the happiest day of his life.
"I hope there are many more to come," Cherchesov responded plainly, before quickly moving on to the next question. Even if he was not willing to engage in hyperbole with the world's media, the lid on his emotions was not too tightly fixed. After his post-match news conference had finished, he exchanged hugs and handshakes with a number of local well-wishers. Before it, as he took his time to leave the Krestovsky Stadium pitch, he had waved his arms to exhort one last roar from an almost disbelieving home crowd.
Make no mistake, though -- Cherchesov and his players will have achieved something extraordinary when, barring an implosion coupled with a freakish couple of performances from Saudi Arabia, their knockout berth is confirmed. This Russia side is a ragtag bunch that has come together almost by accident, assembled through bare necessity as key players dropped like flies and pre-tournament results nosedived. They are the lowest FIFA-ranked team in the tournament and were commonly cast, by fans and media alike, as the country's worst ever. Now they look vibrant, brimming with confidence and intent: the transformation is nothing short of astonishing.
"We don't like this word, we don't have it in our vocabulary," Cherchesov said when asked about the problems Russia have overcome in turning the form book upside down. "We've dealt with difficulties as soon as they emerged. We did our homework and learned from the mistakes that didn't allow us to succeed in the past. There are no problems, we didn't have problems and we won't have problems in the future."
Such is Russia's change in fortunes that, on the last point, it is almost tempting to believe him. When Alan Dzagoev, a playmaker who can look after the ball more effectively than anyone else in their ranks, went off with a hamstring pull early in the win over Saudi Arabia it appeared simply to be the latest in a litany of injuries that have ravaged the core of the squad.
Cherchesov had to reconfigure and it has paid off handsomely. Dzagoev is hardly the most mobile but now, with Aleksandr Golovin probing as a number 10 and Denys Cheryshev -- an unexpected star with three goals in two games -- bursting down the left wing they seem to have found a balance and tempo that work.
How far can it take them? When a host nation harnesses some momentum the possibilities for a deep run into the tournament are endless -- witness South Korea's remarkable performance in 2002, when Spain and Italy were defeated en route to a fourth-place finish. In fact, Spain could well be Russia's opponents in this year's second round and it remains a stretch to seriously imagine a shock if that fixture transpires. But togetherness between a nation and its football team can be an awesome force: Russia had not enjoyed anything like that for a decade but, as all four sides of the stadium resounded to chants of "Rossiya! Rossiya!", you wondered whether something has awoken.
Now their fans can renew genuine affection for heroes whose days appeared to have passed. Sergei Ignashevich, who turns 39 the day before the World Cup final, had retired from international football before being pressed back into duty on the eve of the tournament, Cherchesov having lost his first-choice centre-backs to injury. He was majestic on Tuesday night and is the only player in the squad to have clear memories of the 1986 World Cup when Russia -- back then under the USSR banner -- last qualified from the group stage.
Artem Dzyuba, scorer of the wonderfully-taken third against Egypt and an inspirational presence throughout, is a controversial firebrand of a centre-forward who would almost certainly not have been involved here if Aleksandr Kokorin had not ruptured his cruciate ligament in March. These players have seized their chances and, somehow, everything has come together.
Cherchesov pointed out how "lively" his substitutes' bench, whose inhabitants ran onto the pitch en masse upon the final whistle, had been over the past two games. "They were all rooting for the team and all actively present. It is a group of solidarity and cohesion," he said. They are not words that, a few short days ago, anybody could seriously have expected him to be using at this stage. But now they might just apply to a long-cynical Russian football scene as a whole. The impact on this World Cup could be profound and perhaps Cherchesov was right to keep his powder dry in front of the media: after what we have seen in the past week, can anyone rule out even happier nights than this?
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.