A poor start in Brazil has disappointed fans in Russia and many blame Fabio Capello, who needs to start winning
Going in to this World Cup, Russian fans were not short on optimism. A poll just before the tournament found that 18% of Russians thought their country would win the tournament and only 7% said they did not think Russia would get out of their group.
Russia’s poor start to the tournament – a lackadaisical 1-1 draw against South Korea – and the time difference between Russia and Brazil means there has not been much of an atmosphere around the World Cup here. Yet at least. But if Russia were to begin doing well, starting against Belgium on Sunday, an outpouring of emotion is always likely – when Russia beat Holland in Euro 2008, the capital’s streets were flooded with joyous, flag-waving fans. The sporting success of the Sochi Winter Olympics and the annexation of Crimea have combined to create a huge upsurge in patriotism and, were the team to go on a run into the knockout stages, the level of interest would rocket.
For now, however, a sense of resignation more familiar to England supporters rules among those who are closely following the team’s fortunes. “Ask yourself when you last actually enjoyed watching the national team play,” wrote one disgruntled commentator on a football forum, after the draw with South Korea. “There is always this national belief in miracles that has absolutely nothing to do with reality. Unfortunately this is our team and it’s the only one we have got.”
There has been no escaping the parallels with England, especially as the Russia coach is now a certain Fabio Capello, who led the Three Lions to a feeble last-16 exit to Germany four years ago. Russia’s start this time has been eerily similar to that of England’s in 2010: huge expectations going into a major tournament, swiftly undermined by uninspiring tactics and an embarrassing goalkeeping error in the first game.
The Koreans took the lead following a goalkeeping error from Igor Akinfeev, who watched a tame shot squirm out of his hands and over the line, in similar fashion to England’s Robert Green four years ago against the USA. Russia got back into the game with an equaliser from the substitute Aleksandr Kerzhakov but could not go on to take a win.
After the game Akinfeev issued an apology to the nation laced with almost masochistic self-criticism, promising that such an error would not happen again. “It was not about the ball, it was about my hands,” he said. “What can a goalkeeper who has made a child’s error think about? Any normal person should apologise and reprove himself at this time … The goalkeeper of the national team should not let in such goals.”
Russia now face Belgium and then the uninspiring but resilient Algeria, who ground out a grim 0-0 draw with Capello’s England in the last World Cup. As England did then, Russia have perhaps the easiest group of the tournament and, even if they lose to Belgium, they may still scrape through Group H in second place. If they do so, then Capello is again likely to come up against a rampant Germany side in the first knockout stage and the prospects for Russia do not look much better than they did for England in Bloemfontein.
What an early exit would mean for Capello is unclear. In January he signed a new, lucrative contract to lead Russia until 2018, when they host the World Cup, but expectations are high and a group-stage exit would put serious pressure on the football authorities to sack him. If he does stay, his task will be to spend the next four years building a team that can shine in 2018.
As in England, much of the discussion around how to build the national team is clouded by claims that it is impossible to nurture homegrown talents in a league that is dominated by expensive foreign players. Capello has called on the Russian Football Union to change the current regulations whereby at least four players in any Premier League team have to be Russian nationals, to five or six in coming years, to boost the growth of homegrown talent.
For some commentators part of the blame for the insipid performance in Brazil so far lies with Capello himself. “The strained, weak and inarticulate football displayed by Russia in their first game provided a strong contrast to the other styles of football we have seen at the World Cup, and predictably has depressed my colleagues and the fans,” wrote the columnist Evgeny Zyryankin in Sport Express. “But this has always been the game of our manager, for his whole career.”