MOSCOW — For most of the World Cup’s first week, the heart of Russia felt more like the center of the planet. The streets surrounding the Kremlin and Red Square, featuring landmarks like the Bolshoi theater and the GUM shopping mall—lit on the outside like it’s always Christmas—were packed with fans wearing different colors and singing foreign songs. As you fought your way through the throng, you were far more likely to hear “Cielito Lindo” or “Soy Argentino, es un sentimiento...” than anything domestic.
On Tuesday night, the locals took their city back.
Optimistically, this tournament was about bringing sports’ biggest event to someplace new, and about welcoming the world to an alluring and complex country that still doesn’t seem so familiar or accessible. Cynically, it’s about propaganda, and the Putin government’s pursuit of global legitimacy and influence. And questions about doping persist. Triumphant Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov refused to answer one from a Norwegian reporter Tuesday night. Either way, for many locals at least, it appeared this World Cup likely wasn’t going to be about the soccer.
Never has less been expected from the host nation’s team. In 2010, South Africans were thrilled just to participate. They threw a massive rally and parade for the Bafana Bafana in the Sandton neighborhood of Johannesburg before the tournament even started, knowing that advancement from a group including France, Mexico and Uruguay was unlikely.
In Russia, the mood was a lot more dour. The World Cup came during a low-point for domestic football. Home to a pair of Europa League winners in the 2000s, the Russian Premier League is mostly irrelevant outside the country’s borders, and even here, it attracts fewer than 14,000 fans per game (and that average is propped up by Zenit St. Petersburg’s crowds of close to 44,000). After nine days in Russia, I’ve seen more MLS jerseys (two Orlando City, one LA Galaxy) then RFPL (one CSKA and one Lokomotiv).
And the national team has been awful. It entered the tournament without a win in eight months and ranked 70th in the world. After drawing just about the softest first-round group anyone can recall, the hope here was that Russia had a moderate chance to avoid embarrassment.
Instead, after two wins, eight goals and the emergence of a couple potential stars, Russia is bound for the round of 16. It’s an astonishing and heady turn of events, and you could hear the euphoria and relief throughout Moscow on Tuesday night, as fans filled the streets following the 3-1 win over Egypt in St. Petersburg. The roads are always choked with cars. This time they were honking—some incessantly, others to the beat of a particular cheer. It was ear-splitting.
Passengers leaned out the windows with national flags, and “Rossiya! Rossiya!” was chanted on sidewalks and the pedestrian thoroughfares radiating from the Kremlin. It felt and sounded different than any World Cup night so far.
Still, no one expects Russia to go too much further. Perhaps there was a “this is as good as it’s going to get” vibe fueling Tuesday’s festivities. Everyone’s aware the two wins came over an abject Saudi Arabian side and the Pharaohs, who are making their first World Cup appearance in 28 years. Just about every European team would be favored over those two. Up next on June 25: group-favorite Uruguay. And then, assuming Russia advances, a second-round match that’ll likely be against Spain or Portugal.
Russia may not win again at this World Cup. But six points and a fourth game seemed so unlikely a couple weeks ago, that there will be scant disappointment if that’s the case. Its team has entertained and scored goals, and forward Denis Cheryshev and playmaker Aleksandr Golovin have introduced themselves to the world. There were injuries and there were doubts, but this has already gone better than just about everyone anticipated.
“We did our homework. We learned from our mistakes that didn’t allow us to be more successful in the past,” Cherchesov said after the Egypt game. “We’re very happy we have two wins under our belt, and we’re very happy we’ve given this joy to our supporters. There are no problems.”
Wednesday’s Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the government’s official newspaper, featured a large front-page photo of forward Artem Dzyuba and the headline, “Спасибо за футбол!”—“Thank you for the football!”—as if officials didn’t expect the tournament to include some of that as well.
“For the first time in 32 years, the Russian national team reached the world championship playoffs,” it added. Advancement has been celebrated and assumed.
The daily Kommersant—not an official paper and traditionally a bit more liberal—had the exact same headline leading its sports page. “Спасибо за футбол!” it blared in bold type over photos of a celebrating Dzyuba, scorer of the third goal against Egypt, and the new national hero, Cheryshev, who’s spent his entire pro career in Spain. A reserve who got in against Saudi Arabia only because Alan Dzagoev was hurt early, Cheryshev has almost as many goals in two World Cup games (three) as he scored for Villarreal all last season (four).
World Cups usually are better when the host team does well—or at least doesn’t fall too far short of expectations. Now that Russia has already exceeded them, this tournament may take on a bit of a different feel. Beyond the politicians and the press, Russian fans can feel that this World Cup can be somewhat theirs as well, at least for a bit longer.
The first question asked of Cherchesov Tuesday night was, “Is this the happiest day of your life?"
His answer: “I hope there are many more to come.”