MOSCOW — Coaches have walked out of press conferences before, but surely not like this or on an occasion so historic. It wasn’t frustration or confrontation that forced Stanislav Cherchesov from the dais, silently and abruptly, inside the Luzhniki Stadium. It was a phone call. “Head of state” on line one.
Considering the self-deprecation and dread that preceded the 2018 World Cup opener here in the Russian capital, most would’ve imagined that call from Vladimir Putin going quite differently. Instead, Cherchesov received words of congratulation, along with what can only be assumed, via translation, to be the president’s unique brand of encouragement.
"He asked me to share his thanks with the team for the performance we put on,” Cherchesov said. “And he asked the team to continue playing like this."
To “continue” playing like this? No one believed before Thursday’s 5-0 demolition of hapless Saudi Arabia that Russia could do it once. This was a team that hadn’t won a game in eight months. It’s ranked 70th in the world by FIFA—the lowest at this World Cup. The vibe here in recent days, at least as far as the home team’s sporting fortunes were concerned, veered from caution to resignation.
Many feared Russia would become the second host, after South Africa in 2010, to fail to survive the group stage. Others expected it. The Moscow Times led its pregame edition with a front page headlined, “Aging and Inexperienced: Why Russia is Doomed to Fail.” Kommarsant’s more optimistic take was, “No matter how shaky the host’s situation looks before the tournament, some coming to Russia are even worse.”
Kommarsant was right. Saudi Arabia was worse. Much worse. Nothing about Wednesday’s visitors resembled a team that can handle itself at a World Cup. And to Russia’s credit, it took swift advantage. Aleksandr Golovin needed about a dozen minutes to change the narrative. The 22-year-old midfielder already had enjoyed a couple enterprising runs when he settled a cleared corner kick, dragged the Saudi defense toward the touchline with a pass to teammate Yury Zhirkov, and then immediately showed again for the ball.
There was confidence there, along with a sense of how the play was unfolding. Golovin’s perfectly pinpoint cross followed, then a well-placed header from Yury Gazinsky, a massive roar that shook the Luzhniki, and surely an equally large sigh of relief.
This Golovin kid could play. Russia has some talent, after all. Russia isn’t shrinking under the spotlight or pressure. There may yet be some second-round prospects for the hosts, and advancement would do an enormous amount for a tournament designed to showcase a country–and its leader–but not necessarily a competitive team. Now, with a good result against Egypt next Tuesday in St. Petersburg, Cherchesov’s beleaguered squad likely will avoid joining South Africa on the wrong side of history. That would be icing on this World Cup cake. There’s nothing like exceeding expectations.
“This is better than receiving calls when people criticize you,” Cherchesov said.
If there was criticism directed toward Cherchesov, a 54-year-old former goalkeeper who took this formerly thankless job in 2016, a lot of it was going to be for reasons far beyond his control. Russian football has been in crisis for some time, the heady days of a surprise Euro 2008 semifinal berth and UEFA Europa League title runs by a couple clubs now feeling like ancient history.
The Russian Premier League has stagnated, and is regarded by many here as a mediocre circuit that stifles domestic players’ development and ambition. The national team, meanwhile, failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup and then went winless four years later in Brazil. The current roster features only a couple renowned names and just two men based abroad. One is a reserve goalkeeper and the other is Villarreal midfielder Denis Cheryshev, who was speaking when Cherchesov answered the phone. All Cheryshev did to earn the right to join his manager at the post-game presser—an honor reserved for the man of the match—was come off the bench for an injured teammate and score two brilliant goals.
“I could have never dreamed anything like this,” said Cheryshev, who’s a Russian hero but barely a Russian product–he moved to Spain as a child.
The 78,011 in attendance Wednesday almost certainly didn’t dream it either. Russia was on the front foot from the opening whistle, with the lively Golovin pulling the strings. There was danger practically every time the CSKA Moscow star was on the ball, and he had a foot in four of Russia’s five goals. After prying the Saudis apart in the 12th, he set the play in motion that led to Cheryshev’s 43rd-minute strike an then crossed the ball to Artem Dzyuba for a 71st-minute header.
The Saudis were well beaten by then, but the Russians weren’t done. Cheryshev made it 4-0 with an astonishing outside-of-the-boot curler, then Golovin punctuated his very man-of-the-match worthy performance with a goal on a free kick.
The evening ended with those two beautiful stoppage-time goals. It began with the firebird, the legendary creature of Russian folklore that sets itself alight before being reborn from its own ashes, and often is the target or inspiration for a mythical quest. That opening ceremony choice left plenty of metaphors to choose from. Maybe Russian soccer would use this World Cup to re-establish some traction and respect. Or perhaps those things, like the firebird, would remain elusive.
Putin was prepared for the latter, on some level. He said this week that Russia’s national team was expected “to play with dignity,” to showcase “interesting football,” and “to fight until the end.” None of that necessarily involves winning. In a speech from Luzhniki's VIP tribune before Thursday’s kickoff, he spoke about soccer’s ability to unite different and distinct cultures, and promised this tournament would introduce the world to “an open, hospitable and friendly country.”
Russia reportedly spent around $11 billion to put this event together, so every effort was going to be made to paint the country and government in a flattering light—especially considering the state of the national team. And if the past couple days in Moscow are indication, many have been able to separate the two. Moscow has felt vibrant despite the soccer cynicism. This beautiful and monumentally imposing city is covered in bright, welcoming décor, and fans have been coming to celebrate. There have been fireworks over Red Square, and nearby Nikolskaya Street has been a hub of song and color, with locals singing alongside supporters from Mexico, Peru, Colombia and others.
Make no mistake, the Saudis were abject. Nobody’s going to label Russia world-beaters, and most understand what Putin–a hockey fan–is after. Much of this World Cup is about image. What may make more of an authentic impact here is the fact that Russians actually could have a team to believe in, at least for a few more days than anticipated. If Golovin’s performance helps pave the way for a move abroad, for example, that may do something to shake domestic football from the doldrums. It may help set a new course. It could be the start of a welcome rise from the ashes.