Russia’s World Cup Opener Alters Its Narrative, Changes Its Outlook, Pleases Putin

  • Russia’s much-maligned national team had a packed crowd in Moscow in disbelief and earned a post-game call from Vladimir Putin on a day when it changed the narrative surrounding the World Cup host.

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….