Russia occupy just the 70th place in the current FIFA World Ranking, which is the lowest position among all World Cup participants. The recent friendly games were hardly optimistic, but Russian fans hope that their team will play a successful tournament at home - and the history suggests that it is not impossible.
In the years ending in “8”, home sides have traditionally been successful at the World Cup. The only relative exception was in 1938, when France lost to the future champions Italy in the quarter-final. Twenty years later, in 1958, Sweden reached the final for the first and only time in their history, eventually losing the decisive game against Brazil. In 1978, Argentina became world champions for the first time ever, and their achievement was repeated by France in 1998.
Moreover, years ending in “8” were positive for the Russians in the recent history, particularly at the European championships. In 1988, their predecessors from Soviet Union finished as runners-up, and in 2008, Russia played in the semi-final. Actually, it was the only time after the collapse of the USSR that Russia reached the knock-out stage at any major tournament.
And the World Cup history also say that the home sides, as a rule, do get past the group stage. So far, the only exception was South Africa who failed to reach the Last 16 in 2010. Now Russia have been drawn into a group alongside Uruguay, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and although the opponents can rely on such prolific forwards as Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani or Mohamed Salah, the team coached by Stanislav Cherchesov definitely has a chance to go through.
That said, Russia have enough problems to fix going into the tournament. Although the CSKA Moscow goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, who has played more than 100 times for his country, has enough quality and experience, their defence looks vulnerable. It was for a reason that Cherchesov brought back the 39-year-old veteran Sergey Ignashevich, who had retired from international football in 2016 and now replaced the injured Ruslan Kambolov.
The team has enough creative midfielders like Alan Dzagoev, Aleksandr Samedov or Dmitri Cheryshev, yet there is a shortage of defensive midfielders. The veteran Igor Denisov, who has just won the Russian league with Lokomotiv Moscow, could be a good fit, yet he is out of the team because of his conflict with Cherchesov.
And the striker Aleksandr Kokorin will miss the World Cup for another reason. In March, the player from Zenit St.Petersburg got a severe injury, and his absence will only aggravate Russia’s problems in attack. The team will heavily rely on Krasnodar’s Fyodor Smolov, whose ability to score for the national team has blossomed during two years under Cherchesov.
Being the World Cup hosts, Russia automatically qualified for the competition, so they have not played any competitive games since last year’s Confederations Cup, where the team failed to advance from the group. After that, they participated only in friendly matches, albeit often with strong opponents such as Argentina, Spain, Brazil and France.
Russia drew against Spain (3:3) and lost to all other heavyweights, but even if they had won, it would not mean much. In the past, the team often did well in exhibition games, even against the strongest rivals, but failed to carry that form into major tournaments. That may be partly explained by mental reasons - lack of confidence and self-belief often did not let the Russian team show their best qualities in crucial moments and live up to high expectations.
Playing at home is normally an advantage, and it may give the players some moral boost and support from their crowd, but actually it is a double-edged sword as the hosts also feel extra pressure. It remains to be seen whether Russia manage to deal with it, and the football fans in the country are divided into two large groups - optimists and pessimists. Some factors and circumstances suggest that Cherchesov’s team are hardly going play a big role on home soil. But let us not forget about history, the years ending in “8” and such things. Maybe the good sign will work, and the Russian team will make the whole nation happy by going far in the tournament.